The UK’s National Digital Library – A Digital Public Space

A Harvard professor, Robert Darnton, has recently made a plea to the American public for the creation of a National Digital Library, which is “a comprehensive library of digitized books that will be easily accessible to the general public.”

In the UK, the idea of such a library has been floating around for a while, but without ever gaining firm traction. However, recently, the BBC has initiated the idea of a Digital Public Space, and has been working hard with their partners, including JISC, on its development.

Like Darnton’s National Library, the Digital Public Space has at its heart the idea of publicly accessible cultural content. Darnton’s focus is books and has a scholarly tinge, presupposing a canon of material that would fit into the National Library; the DPS is much more catholic, drawing in sounds, movies, music, images, books, documents, texts, magazines, and having, one senses, a more fluid collections policy.

Moreover, the Digital Public Space will deal with the largest barrier to mass digitisation, that of copyright. The DPS would be constructed as a secure, trusted space for high-quality content. Copyright material would be made freely available to the public, but access would be via authentication and delivered via universities, libraries, schools etc. and, if federated infrastructure develops suitably, to individuals. At the same time, the DPS would offer costed access to commercial users wishing to exploit the goldmine of content. The costs would be used to pay back the rights holders and sustain the DPS.

It’s still early days for an ambitious concept. There is still much to be worked out – not least in terms of metadata, authentication, branding and the technical architecture. But there are a number of impressive organisations involved – beyond the BBC and JISC, the British Library, the British Film Institute, the National Archives are all engaged. As Lynne Brindley of British Library says in the recent Inspiring Research, Inspiring Scholarship report:

“We are sitting on a goldmine of content which should be within a coherent UK national digital strategy. To support Digital Britain we need to deliver a critical mass of digital content. Access… ought to be the right of every citizen, every household, every child, every school and public library, universities and business. That’s a vision worth delivering on.”

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