The National Digital Platform for Libraries and Museums

Collaborating on tools and services across organizations

June 11, 2015

The National Digital Platform for Libraries and Museums

Picture the following diverse scenarios: A librarian in Utah develops and shares a plugin for an open source repository system that is reused by libraries in three other states; a curator in New York City improves the documentation for open source exhibition software that is used by staff members at museums and libraries around the country to create more dynamic presentations of historical artifacts; a network of libraries bands together to develop a common system that makes it easier for other libraries to provide Americans access to ebooks; a nonprofit organization develops and runs a series of workshops to equip librarians around the country to install, deploy, configure, and connect open source tools to acquire, preserve, and provide access to digital objects; a regional library association runs a residency program to place recent library school graduates into positions at cultural heritage organizations in order to run significant digital curation activities and share what they learn.

In each of these situations, staffers work to solve local needs for their institutions’ communities and constituencies. These professionals are also contributing directly to regional and national efforts. The local work at each of these organizations is making use of and contributing to the national digital platform for libraries and museums.

The national digital platform for libraries and museums has both a broad and a specific meaning. Broadly, it can be conceptualized as a way of thinking about all the digital tools, services, infrastructure, and human effort libraries use to meet the needs of their users across the United States. More specifically, it is an area of priority for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grants programs to invest in expanding the digital capability and capacity of libraries across the country.

The platform as a way of thinking

The platform isn’t an individual thing. It isn’t a piece of software or a website. The national digital platform is a way of thinking about and approaching the digital capability and capacity of libraries across the US. In this sense, it is the combination of software applications, social and technical infrastructure, and staff expertise that provide library content and services to all users in the US. That is, the national digital platform is a way of thinking about how all of the components and the knowledge required to use and contribute to them interact with other existing platforms (commercial and open) and meet the needs of the library and museum users across the US.

As libraries increasingly use digital infrastructure to provide access to digital content and resources, there are more and more opportunities for collaboration around the tools and services that they use to meet their users’ needs. It is possible for each library in the country to leverage and benefit from the work of other libraries in shared digital services, systems, and infrastructure.

The national digital platform is a way of thinking about and approaching the digital capability and capacity of libraries across the US. . . . it is the combination of software applications, social and technical infrastructure, and staff expertise that provide library content and services to all users in the US.

From this perspective, the foundations of a national digital platform for libraries and museums already exist in a range of open source software projects and shared services provided by local, regional, and national organizations and institutions. However, because we as a nation have conducted an enormous amount of digital library research and development over the past 20 years locally or in small collaborations but not on a national scale, this platform currently exists as a diffuse set of largely disconnected components.

The platform as an approach to funding

To date, IMLS has invested more than $1 billion in developing and improving digital tools, services, and infrastructure for libraries. From 2005 to 2013, the Advancing Digital Resources priority of the National Leadership Grants for Libraries program has invested $30 million in the development of digital resources. From 2002 to 2011, the Grants to States program has supported $980 million in information infrastructure projects, with $67 million of that amount going toward digitization efforts. Over the years, several other public and private funders—notably the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and more recently, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—have also made significant contributions to library digital services and infrastructure.

These investments have made a significant and lasting impact. Yet the impact remains far more diffuse than it could be. At a meeting exploring the concept of the national digital platform in New York City in April 2014, a range of experts representing all types of libraries and foundations encouraged IMLS to prioritize improving and better connecting the most promising digital tools, services, and content that have clear potential to scale up. A theme running through many of the experts’ comments and discussion was that there is a clear need to shift away from supporting a range of one-off individual projects and focus more on supporting projects that catalyze and advance the capability and capacity for libraries to meet the needs of their users.

We need to bridge gaps between disparate pieces of the existing digital infrastructure, for increased efficiencies, cost savings, access, and services. To this end, IMLS is focusing on the national digital platform as an area of priority in the National Leadership Grants to Libraries program and the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program. We are eager to explore how this way of thinking and approaching infrastructure development can help states make the best use of the funds they receive through the Grants to States program. We’re also eager to work with other foundations and funders to maximize the impact of our federal investment.

The national digital platform for libraries and museums is not something that will be built from the ground up; it is a thing that already exists, at least in part.

The idea of the national digital platform is resonating beyond the library community. President Barack Obama’s budget request for IMLS for 2016 includes a targeted increase for this priority. Specifically, an additional $8.8 million supports the national digital platform priority, which would be funded through the IMLS National Leadership Grant programs for libraries ($5.3  million) and museums ($3.5 million). That potential increase in funding demonstrates the timeliness of this vision.

The future of the national digital platform

The national digital platform for libraries and museums is not something that will be built from the ground up; it is a thing that already exists, at least in part. It is something that we can work together to improve. The platform exists in the range of open source software projects and shared services provided by regional and national organizations and institutions that are used by libraries across the country to meet the needs of their users. The challenge to our community is to identify missing or underdeveloped pieces, to improve how all components fit together and with other platforms, and to help ensure that librarians across the country are equipped to make the best use of those components to meet the needs of their communities.

In the near term, this involves work in a range of areas. It means further investment in successful digital infrastructure, filling gaps in that infrastructure, investing to bring practices to scale, work that engages and expands the communities of end users, and developing digital library professionals and leaders. These areas of focus are evolving through ongoing engagement with leaders representing the various sectors of the library community in the US.

IMLS plans to continue bringing together experts on these issues from across the range of library sectors to inform the particular priority needs for the national digital platform. The IMLS website regularly posts updates—such as information about webcasts, notes, reports, and calls for proposals—that are related to this priority.