For several years, Martin Gomez has been actively promoting the Digital Public Library of America – a campaign to digitize inventories of cultural and scientific records and make them available to everyone, online – in effect, creating the public library of the future. Until this month, he served as general manager of Los Angeles’ public library system, overseeing 72 branches, 1,100 employees, and an annual budget of $129-million. He resigned recently to take a new job as vice-dean of libraries at the University of Southern California. Mr. Gomez was in Toronto this week to appear at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Before his address, he spoke to the Globe and Mail’s Michael Posner.
Globe and Mail: When you talk about creating a digital public library, what exactly do you mean?
Gomez: A whole universe of information has been digitized. We are not too far, in the near future, from being able to connect a lot of the content that’s been created, or is being created, by libraries in the United States, and eventually across the world – content that students, scholars and the general public could easily access. The Digital Public Library of America [DPLA]is trying to create that infrastructure.
Globe and Mail: Are academic and large research libraries part of this initiative?
Gomez: They’re leading it. They’ve done a better job of positioning themselves by digitizing their data, and have demonstrated the value of digitized information used to promote new knowledge and scholarship. I’m trying to bring the public library community into it. We have a big learning curve, but there’s now enough interest and momentum for this to become a reality very soon.
Globe and Mail: How soon?
Gomez: I think it’s quite achievable in the next decade.
Globe and Mail: In effect, you’re talking about a universal Cloud.
Gomez: Yes. But unlike the general Internet, there’d be more authenticity, more verification of content. Public libraries have a lot of public trust. And if libraries don’t do it, who will?
Globe and Mail: The answer to that might be Google.
Gomez: I think they are trying to. But that content would be made available for a price. Public libraries function as intermediaries on behalf of the public, to make sure content is available to students, families and the general public – not at zero cost, but at a cost already built into their taxes.
Globe and Mail: What are the principal obstacles you face?
Gomez: There are issues around copyright and public domain. In e-publishing, a lot of big publishers are unwilling to sell or license current publications to libraries, so we are shut out of that market. And a lot of communities are not well versed in how to use digital content. Libraries could become a hub for teaching those skills – both how to discern and interpret information, and to provide tools to help create digital content.
Globe and Mail: Are there any models or pilot projects under way?
Gomez: There are. Denver’s public library has digitized an archive of photographs, maps and other documents that chronicle the settlement of the Western United States. But there are many possible applications.
Globe and Mail: Who’s backing this venture financially?
Gomez: Two huge foundations are funding it, just to get the ball rolling. But over time, public libraries will have to shift resources for these purposes. That will be tricky, because we still have a large constituency that supports the traditional role. I’m not saying we need to throw that out, but there is also a younger generation more adept at using digital devices to get information. We need to be where they are. Public libraries could pay a subscription fee to be a member, so the expense would be nominal for local communities. That’s one model.
Globe and Mail: And if public libraries don’t, as they say, get with the program?
Gomez: Many public libraries are having a hard time just keeping their doors open. But to maintain relevance in the digital age, we need to provide access. The universe is changing. Unless we start planning for this future and trying new models, I think we are going to be left behind.