New Golden Age for Digital Libraries?

We’ve passed through so many major changes in the digital age. Librarians led the way in the internet revolution, teaching people how to use a mouse, what a web browser was and how to use it, and so much more for internet and information literacy. With the National Digital Library granting program in the US in the 1990s, we saw early digitization work move from experimental to codifying standards, and expressing ways to dream and think of how libraries could be—radically open spaces of possibility where access to materials heralded access and connection to services and experts. This was the golden age of digitization—from experiment to operational.

From the 2000s-now, we’ve seen the digital library and repository revolution—building digital library and repository systems, laying the groundwork for the next generation of systems with standards, tools, and interface practices (e.g., pairtree, IIIF, rights statements, permanent identifiers, embedded pageturners for books). I see this as the first golden age of digital libraries, where we worked to build our systems for our needs and by us, instead of being locked into inadequate and costly vendor systems. In this first golden age, we’ve seen repositories as systems come of age. We have local institutional repositories, Humanities Commons and other subject repositories for PDF/journal/more traditional scholarly products. We’ve seen data repositories come into their own as well, with established and mature services like Dryad. While there is more work to be done on these systems, the repositories have moved from experimental to operational.

Digital libraries, however, for their promise of fullness in terms of support for material types, technical services, and integration with policies and practices, teaching, and research, are in a place of awaiting rebirth. The fantastic digital library systems that we built and implemented (or that we attempted) need to be rebuilt to modern web standards and modern server structures. We built in a time of locally hosted servers and the early days of commodity hosting, and now we have new ways of working with cloud storage and computing, with DevOps practices, micro services, and even just with the official release (now long ago) of HTML5 and CSS3. Our last age did a great deal of the technical work, and our current age will do the technical work again, with an even heavier emphasis on the socio-technical (people, policies, technologies, communities). We can see the new golden age in the range of positions in libraries in data curation, digital scholarship, library publishing, scholarly communications, scholarly repositories, digital humanities, and more. And, we can see the new golden age waiting to come into being when we see our existing digital libraries, often desperately in need of both cosmetic and core infrastructure work.

This new golden age will be complicated and difficult because, while we’ve learned so much from past work, much of the prior work will need to be largely rebuilt. The older standards and practices underlying the old systems are technical debt, which is like delayed maintenance on a home: when the roof, plumbing, and electrical all need repair, and the foundation is cracked, it’s harder to update and repair than it is to build a new house in a greenfield. But, the digital libraries are our homes, and we have to live in them while the repair work is being done. And, we have new services (new rooms, a pool, friends moving in) to ensure continuous support and enhancements.

We’ve seen the discussions move from innovators to maintainers, and our new golden age is one of developing systems that sustain. Instead of the question of migrating to the “next generation” big system, the question is on building solid parts, renovating, and connecting; sometimes in innovative ways and always in ways that are premised on full socio-technical systems of maintenance and care.

I’m working on my metaphors, but I think the best way to describe much of our work now is like we’re working on a house, within a neighborhood, within a beloved community. We have all of the work to do–and all of the joy that comes with meaningful work with our communities–from updates to our core systems (like a house, replacing galvanized steel pipes with PVC, having to run new pipes), using our tools and skills to supporting our community (like neighbors with chainsaws when a tree goes down, or neighbors offering to share fridge space when power goes out from a strong storm), our core community supporting each other for our whole selves (like driving neighbors to the hospital when needed, being there for random chats in the street, to share good news, comfort, and care). My metaphors need work, but the galvanized steel pipes are a great example of the move from the second to the third digital library golden age–galvanized steel, like our older systems, were state of the art and lasted a long time. But, over time, the pipes corroded and water can’t get through, dropping water pressure, and things can’t drain, pipes burst and flood. Our older code, even when ideal at the time, has decayed and no longer meets functional and nonfunctional requirements (speed, effort to complete certain tasks, etc.).

I’m excited to be here during this next golden age for digital libraries, and to see what we will build and grow together.