Linked Data, Unlinked Communities
Many academic and public libraries in the US host or maintain digital libraries, which can be broadly understood as technologies that support the open access and preservation of unique digital content. These can encompass institutional repositories that house the scholarly journals, dissertations, and data produced at an organization, or a digital collection of items like historic manuscripts or newspapers, archival audio and moving images. Conceptually, these applications and programs are rooted in the most radical professional values of libraries: openness, privacy, permanence, and equity.
The steady advancement of these values through open digital libraries fundamentally shifts power over information access away from “pay-to-play” gatekeepers, such as traditional publishers or service providers, and into the hands of the global citizenry. However, digital libraries in the United States are struggling to fulfill their mission of advancing a global intellectual sharing economy, and the staggering costs of products and labor make it difficult for many libraries to participate equitably in user communities and product governance. Affirming feminist ethics as an essential practice within digital library communities is vital to ameliorating these inequalities.
Digital library practitioners advance a core set of ethics: that information should be open and accessible to all comers; that content should maintain its authenticity over time; and that systems should facilitate anonymous consumption and transformative creation. These norms are often codified in digital collections policies and professional association mission statements, and carried forth in software design. These concepts of sharing, equity, care, and community align well to the feminist ethics of care framework that emphasizes the moral value of responding to inequality through attentiveness and responsible action. Most importantly, digital libraries are powerful tools to reduce economic, geographic, ableist, and political barriers to accessing rare materials, scholarly research, or data. Yet progress toward these objectives continues to be slowed by the cost of community participation.
The onus has long been on individual libraries to field the resources to participate in the digital library community as it has evolved, shifting stewardship and tool development into the hands of local library staff. Libraries are in the business of permanence, and creating digital materials designed to outlast Flickr and YouTube requires extensive skill. Rather than merely “putting a hard drive on a shelf” or “content in ‘the cloud,’” digital preservation is an ongoing set of activities that must be performed by specialized staff to monitor, migrate, repair, and track assets for as long as the collection must be maintained. Even a minimal program frequently requires staff to perform digitization, manage content, administer a repository, and create standardized descriptions. Preservation demands created by this influx of content compounds these expenses — the cost of keeping digitized materials over time can easily outstrip the cost of creating them. At the author’s library, preserving a single digitized basketball game for five years will cost 4x more than the expense of digitizing it. In addition, hard drives fail, server rooms flood, software becomes obsolete, and bits rot — digital preservationists have to stay one step ahead of a mundane event causing catastrophic information loss.
A number of digital library technologies are freely available and open source, with user communities and nonprofit organizations serving as governing entities. A substantial amount of these technologies are developed by staff in libraries and cultural heritage institutions, who then contribute source code back to the community. However, these open source projects almost inevitably require local systems administrators and dedicated software developers to run and support local requirements. Library IT staff are typically more expensive talent than librarians. They are also more likely to be men, and they have different organizational cultures within their libraries that underscore gendered norms about the divide between technical work and care work.
A seat at the governing table for open source products is commonly dictated by a library’s ability to pay membership fees to governing organizations and supply “in kind” software development labor. In the US, this often means digital library technologies are strongly influenced by the requirements of the wealthiest public libraries and research universities in the country. As a result, open source tools are rarely “turnkey” solutions that can be easily managed by a web technologies librarian who also needs to manage the website, online catalog, electronic subscription databases, interlibrary loan system, and work on a reference desk. Libraries that can’t afford the labor investment to support open-source digital library software may choose commercial solutions provided by companies like Elsevier out of necessity, putting them back into bed with the same publishers that have opposed open access initiatives for decades and gleefully pillaged library collections budgets. Such a move reinforces the “David and Goliath” dynamic between small individual libraries and global corporations with 30 percent profit margins.
This economic stratification of digital library communities is counter to the radical, social justice spirit in which these initiatives were originally launched. Institutional wealth even impacts participation in seemingly free cross-institutional initiatives like HathiTrust and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Successful long term participation in these programs requires existing access to robust and well-resourced programs that conform to strict technical standards for images, metadata, and data transfers. Grant funding is often provided to institutions with strong local infrastructure in place, further rewarding and perpetuating these inequalities. Recently, the DPLA unexpectedly announced a radical strategic realignment that resulted in layoffs at the nonprofit organization, generating significant outcry in the practitioner community over the lack of transparent communication and open governance. Weeks later, the Digital Preservation Network announced it was ceasing its digital preservation services. These events illustrate the challenges of sustaining funding for large cooperatives or centralized efforts, and how fee-based participation further strains the finances of overextended libraries.
The dominance of wealthy institutions, combined with limited avenues for participation by public-facing librarians, curators, or staff results in products that are designed and managed by a largely homogenous cohort of IT staff who are often many steps removed from the students, instructors, or users who interact with digital content. This siloing of emotional labor, rather than actively inviting the insight of library staff who must help patrons and researchers use these interfaces, ultimately means the digital library experience is worse without massive local investments, and accessible to fewer libraries outside the wealthiest organizations.
Siloed digital library programs driven by local needs inevitably leads to limited, internally-focused products with marginal visibility to a global audience. Smaller libraries have little hope of competing with the “engagement” features of dubious, commercial social network sites like Academia.edu. Rather than mimicking the anti-feminist and hostile culture of Silicon Valley within our libraries, digital library practitioners can instead embrace the transformative power of open, equitable collaboration and distributed expertise.
A return to the foundational values of digital libraries and an embrace of feminist approaches to application governance and development would create better digital libraries. Feminist leadership rejects the capitalist, exclusionary, and isolationist tactics that have created stratification and weakened products. Feminist organizations that place social justice, transparency, and equity at the center of their mission are essential to the growth of stronger communities and products that sustain a variety of needs, perspectives, and initiatives, rather than continuing to build tools for the rarified few with substantial resources at their command. The open source digital library community has an opportunity to reify collaboration and emotional labor as vital aspects of product development. Imagine if activities like conducting focus groups with end users were incentivized like code contributions, with community recognition and voting rights on the future of a digital library project. If products are improved coherently at the community level with concrete user data and analysis, then open source digital library products become feasible for under-resourced libraries. More libraries with digital library programs then expands the user base and leads to a stronger, more diverse community.
Collaboration between peer institutions, rather than centralized membership models, can also be rewarded by open source digital library communities. Cooperative models of resource sharing and collaboration are extremely common across libraries, and it is not unusual for wealthier libraries to provide digital library services and support to partner libraries in a consortium. This approach, when combined with a feminist practice of integrating and advancing the needs of all consortial members, makes it possible for an equitable practitioner community to emerge. Expanding participation opportunities for partnering libraries as well as prioritizing features that facilitate multiple organizations sharing a single digital library serves to further expand the active user community for open source digital library applications, and incentivizes host libraries. Ultimately, these efforts can bring digital library projects closer to delivering on the original promise — that digital content is for anyone, anywhere.