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The Dangers of Momentum

by on August 15, 2012

I have been following the excitement that has developed over the Digital Public Library of America.  I’ve also been following the momentum for the Digital Preservation Network. I am excited about the sudden interest and excitement in both of these initiatives. I am also cautious of the developing momentum.

Momentum can be great for projects.  People get excited, and people work harder. I have personal experience in how momentum can go wrong.

I was involved in a digital initiative before Google announced their book project, so pre October 2004. Our library had decided to digitize books on a massive scale and we were gearing up to do it just as Google announced their plans. Since no one really knew what the Google book project really meant, we went forward with our projects. We developed a mentality that we were there to scan hundreds of thousands of books. There were, total, 16 people involved in the planning and in the maintenance of the digital initiatives, so change was difficult. Even when it became obvious that Google was going to scan the things we were planning on scanning and that they were going to scan it faster and better than we could, we marched on because we had already developed momentum toward mass digitization of books. We convinced ourselves that even if we were scanning the same books as Google, we would make them different because of the high quality of our scans.  This mentally lasted from 2004 all the way to 2010 (and a little beyond that).

We had gained momentum in the wrong direction. It was as if we were driving toward a cliff faster and faster, and when we finally saw the cliff, we couldn’t easily turn one way or another because there were too many people involved. We were so big that we had no agility to change. It took going from 16 people (with 6 leads) to a new unit with a single lead, and three people following (4 people total) in order to change the direction of the momentum we had going.

So, our new direction is not book based. There is a book element, but we are only scanning books Google can’t do. Our focus is  scanning the rare and unique materials available to us and our community that Google could never scan. This is the true benefit of individual scanning efforts by libraries and archives. They are often the only people who have access to, and who care about some of these materials and who have the resources to make them visible to the world.

The lesson I took from all of this was that the more people are invested in something, the harder it becomes for that thing to change when circumstances change.  I doubt the Digital Public Library of America and the Digital Preservation Network will go the wrong direction, but it’s worth it to keep the dangers of momentum in mind while they build something as important as a national digital library.

 

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One Comment
  1. As a side note, one of the dangers I see of the developoing Digital Preservation Network, is that people are hanging a lot of hopes on it instead of taking efforts to preserve their digital files now. I would like to see people still trying to do the best they can to come up to the standards of Trusted Digital Repositories (http://www.crl.edu/archiving-preservation/digital-archives/metrics-assessing-and-certifying-0), espeicaly while the DPN is in it’s founding stages. Otherwise, in the time it takes for the DPN to be developed, there might already be data lost.

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