Creating Participatory Digital Libraries

“Participatory Digital Libraries” is the name of a talk Paul Jones, Director of, gave this morning at OCLC’s Kilgour Auditorium. Known as “The Public’s Library,” ibiblio is a large, diverse digital library. His talk offered insight on how ibiblio works and commentary for applying the same successful techniques in library projects. This is a summary of the key points of his talk; errors of transcription and omission are undoubtedly my own.

Digital Archives in Action

In one part of the presentation, Paul describes the array of curatorial practices used for ibiblio collections. First, however, he distinguished his activity from that of tradition archives. “Archives,” in his words, “look for interesting collections; we look for interesting people creating interesting collections in interesting ways.” Put another way, ibiblio experimented with getting to the front end of the content creation process by finding people as they were creating the collections.

They collected the collectors and empower them with tools to build the content. As a result of seeding many such experiments, ibiblio has many different, idiosyncratic ways of building collections.

  • — This is an IMLS-funded project that is a “rescue mission” for documentary films created in the 1960s. The collection is curated by well-respected film makers.
  • Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den — A single individual that has been recording a folk song a week for 12 years. The contents of the collection? “What ever interests Roger McGuinn.”
  • Documenting the American South — After residing for 10 years on ibiblio, this collection is now being migrated to a UNC Libraries server. Curated by professional archivists, it has lots of money invested in best-practice output for digitization, description, and standards-based (e.g., TEI Lite) artifacts.
  • Moonshine — A project created by students creating on online exhibition to materials in the university archives.
  • Degree Confluence — A participatory infrastructure that allows people to contribute pictures and diary entries from points on the earth’s surface where integer values of latitude and longitude intersect.

Paul also mentioned a bit about blogs. His observation is that researchers are not putting content into Institutional Repositories, yet they are putting content into blogs, photo sharing sites, and the like. Many of these content systems that researchers are using have RSS capabilities, and the metadata in an RSS feed is at times better than what we ask users to provide in an IR. Perhaps our “IR” capabilities could be about RSS harvesting this content and preserving it.

Five ‘Big Ideas’

In a subsequent paper published in the Communications of the ACM, Paul described the ibiblio effort this way: “By adopting not only the open-source tools, but also the open-source philosophy encouraging community interaction and contributor involvement, digital libraries can open new horizons to new communities as well as greatly improve traditional services.” He touched on five ‘big ideas’ and how they impact the digital library arena.

  1. The Long Tail. ibiblio made many little bets by seeding many collectors, as opposed to focusing on blockbusters (as say what the Smithsonian or California Digital Library does).
  2. Democratizing Innovation. No one is ultimately happy with how you present things to them. Enabling users to modify things creates happier and more satisfied users, and better products result from looking at what users do.
  3. Wealth of Networks. A community working together to remix and create knowledge increases the knowledge capital in a system. This book also discusses the value of market and non-market interactions.
  4. Free Culture. Discusses the social utility of information wanting to be free. Who owns the cultural heritage and who preserves it and why these are important questions.
  5. Small is the New Big. He touched on this book briefly, but my notes and memory fail me at this point.

(See Paul’s presentation page for demonstrations of these ideas in action — each of these books has a free online version and/or a remix and/or a blog that discusses the ideas presented both before and after formal publication.)

Paul also mentions one that he hopes spend some time working on: Laws of Simplicity. We have simple ideas (e.g. the web’s core HTML and HTTP standards), but not simple tools for our users.

Experts And (not ‘Versus’) Passionate Amateurs

This heading is my summary of a portion of his talk, and the theme struck a chord with me. How does the role of experts intersect with the role of people just trying to get their jobs done? He states quite emphatically that there is a middle ground between formal description (‘cataloging’) and user-driven description (‘tagging’). How do we build a community of professionals and enthusiasts who fill the space between content objects with new knowledge? This is already starting to play out in other arenas — how will “Encyclopedia of Life” and “Wikipedia” interact? In one “material will…be authenticated by scientists”1 and in the other “thousands of people have contributed information to different parts of this project, and anyone can do so”2.

The text was modified to update a link from to on January 20th, 2011.


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(This post was updated on 19-Jan-2011.)