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The National Digital Platform for Libraries: An Interview with Trevor Owens and Emily Reynolds from IMLS

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I had the chance to ask Trevor Owens and Emily Reynolds at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) about the national digital platform priority and current IMLS grant opportunities.  I was interested to hear how these opportunities could support ongoing activities and research in the digital preservation and stewardship communities.

Erin: Could you give us a quick overview of the Institute of Museum and Library Services national digital platform? In what way is it similar or different from how IMLS has previously funded research and development for digital tools and services?

Trevor Owens, IMLS senior program officer.
Trevor Owens, IMLS senior program officer.

Trevor: The national digital platform has to do with the digital capability and capacity of libraries across the U.S. 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. The idea for the platform has been developed in dialog with a range of stakeholders through annual convenings. For more information on those, you can see the notes (PDF) and videos from our 2014 and 2015 IMLS Focus convenings.

As libraries increasingly use digital infrastructure to provide access to digital content and resources, there are more opportunities for collaboration around the tools and services used to meet their users’ needs. It is possible for every library in the country to leverage and benefit from the work of other libraries in shared digital services, systems, and infrastructure. We need to bridge gaps between disparate pieces of the existing digital infrastructure for increased efficiencies, cost savings, access, and services.

IMLS is focusing on the national digital platform as an area of priority in the National Leadership Grants to Libraries and the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant programs. Both of these programs have October 1st deadlines for two-page preliminary proposals and will have another deadline for proposals in February. It is also relevant to the Sparks! Ignition Grants for Libraries program.

Erin: One of the priorities identified in the 2015 NDSA National Agenda for Digital Stewardship (PDF) centers around enhancing staffing and training, and the report on the recent national digital platform convening (PDF) stresses issues in supporting professional development and training.  There’s obvious overlap here; how do you see the current education and training opportunities in the preservation community contributing to the platform?  How would you like to see them expanded?

Emily Reynolds, Winner of 2014 Future Steward NDSA Innovation Award.
Emily Reynolds, IMLS program specialist and 2014 Future Steward NDSA Innovation Awardee.

Emily: We know that there are many excellent efforts that support digital skill development for librarians and archivists. Since so much of this groundwork has been done, with projects like POWRR, DigCCurr, and the Digital Preservation Management Workshops, we’d love to see collaborative approaches that build on existing curricula and can serve as stepping stones or models for future efforts. That is to say, we don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel! Increasing collaboration also broadens the opportunities for updating training as time passes and desirable skills change.

The impact that the education and training component has on the national digital platform as a whole is tremendous. Even for projects without a specific focus on professional development or training, we’re emphasizing things like documentation and outreach to professional staff. After all, what good is all of this infrastructure if the vast majority of librarians can’t use it? We need to make sure that the tools and systems being used nationally are available and usable to professionals at all types of organizations, even those with fewer resources, and training is a big part of making that happen.

Erin:  Another priority identified in the Agenda is supporting content selection at scale.  For example, there are huge challenges in collecting and preserving large amounts of digital content that libraries and archives that may be interested in for their users, patrons, or researchers.  One of those challenges is knowing what’s been created or being collected or available for access.  Do you see the national digital platform supporting any activities or research around digital content selection?

Trevor: Yes, content selection at scale fits squarely in a broader need for using computational methods to scale up library practices in many different areas. One of the panels at the national digital platform convening this year focused directly on scaling up practice in libraries and archives. Broadly, this included discussions of crowdsourcing, linked data, machine learning, natural language processing and data mining. All of these have considerable potential to move further away from doing things one at a time and duplicating effort.

As an example that directly addresses the issue of content selection at scale, in the first set of grants awarded through the national digital platform, one focuses directly on this issue for web archives. In Combining Social Media Storytelling with Web Archives (LG-71-15-0077) (PDF), Old Dominion University and the Internet Archive are working to develop tools and techniques for integrating “storytelling” social media and web archiving. The partners will use information retrieval techniques to (semi-)automatically generate stories summarizing a collection and mine existing public stories as a basis for librarians, archivists, and curators to create collections about breaking events.

Erin: Supporting interoperability seems to be a strong and necessary component of the platform.  Could you discuss broadly and specifically what role interoperable tools or services could fill for the platform? For example, IMLS recently funded the Hydra-in-a-Box project, an open source digital repository, so it would be interesting to hear how you see the digital preservation community’s existing and developing tools and services working together to benefit the platform.

“Defining and Funding the National Digital Platform” panel (James G. Neal, Amy Garmer, Brett Bobley, Trevor Owens). Courtesy of IMLS.

Trevor: First off, I’d stress that the platform already exists, it’s just not well connected and there are lots of gaps where it needs work. The Platform is the aggregate of the tools and services that libraries, archives and museums build, use and maintain. It also includes the skills and expertise required to put those tools and services into use for users across the country. Through the platform, we are asking the national community to look at what exists and think about how they can fill in gaps in that ecosystem. From that perspective, interoperability is a huge component here. What we need are tools and services that easily fit together so that libraries can benefit from the work of others.

The Hydra-in-a-box project is a great example of how folks in the library and archives community are thinking. The full name of that project, Fostering a New National Library Network through a Community-­Based, Connected Repository System (LG-70-15-0006) (PDF), gets into more of the logic going on behind it. What I think reviewers found compelling about this project is how it brought together a series of related problems and initiatives, and is working to bridge different, but related, library communities.

On one hand, the Digital Public Library of America is integrating with a lot of different legacy systems, from which it’s challenging to share collection data. The Fedora Hydra open source software community has been growing significantly across academic libraries. There is a barrier for entrants to start using Hydra. Large academic libraries that often have several developers working on their projects are the ones who are able to use and benefit from Hydra at this point. By working together, these partners can create and promulgate a solution that makes it easier for more organizations to use Hydra. When more organizations can use Hydra, more organizations can then become content hubs for the DPLA. The partnership with DuraSpace brings their experience in sustaining digital projects, and the possibility of establishing hosted solutions for a system that could provide Hydra to smaller institutions.

“The State of Distributed National Capacity” panel (James Shulman, Sibyl Schaefer, Evelyn McLellan, Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt) Courtesy of IMLS.

Erin: IMLS hosted Focus Convenings on the national digital platform in April 2014 and April 2015.  Engaging communities and end users at the local level seemed to be a recurring theme at both meetings, but also how to encourage involvement and share resources at the national level.  What are some of the opportunities the digital preservation community could address related to engagement activities to support this theme?

Emily: I think this is a question we’re still actively trying to figure out, and we are interested in seeing ideas from libraries and librarians on how we can help in these areas. We know that there are communities whose records and voices aren’t equally represented in a range of national efforts, and we know that in many cases there are unique issues around cultural sensitivity. Addressing those issues requires direct and sustained contact with, and understanding of, the groups involved.  For example, one of the reasons Mukurtu CMS has been so successful with Native communities is because of how embedded in the project those communities’ concerns are. Those relationships have allowed Mukurtu to create a national network of collections while still encouraging individual repositories to maintain local perspectives and relationships.

Engaging communities to participate in national digital platform activities is another way to address concerns about local involvement. We’ve seen great success with the Crowd Consortium, for example, and the tools and relationships that are being developed around crowdsourcing. Various institutions have also done a great deal of work in this area through use of HistoryPin and similar tools. Crowdsourcing and other opportunities for community engagement in digital collections have the unique capacity to solicit and incorporate the viewpoints and input of a huge range of participants.

Erin: Do you have any thoughts on what would make a proposal compelling? Either a theme or project-related topic that fits with the national digital platform priority?

Participants at IMLS Focus: The National Digital Platform. Courtesy of IMLS.
Participants at IMLS Focus: The National Digital Platform. Courtesy of IMLS.

Trevor: The criteria for evaluating proposals for any of our programs are spelled out in the relevant IMLS Notice of Funding Opportunity. The good news is that there aren’t any secrets to this. The proposals likely to be the most compelling are going to be the ones that best respond to the criteria for any individual program. Across all of the programs, applicants need to make the case that there is a significant need for the work they are going to engage in. Things like the report from the national digital platform convening are a great way to establish the case for the need for the work an applicant wants to do.

I’m also happy to offer thoughts on some points in proposals that aren’t quite as competitive. For the National Leadership Grants, I can’t stress enough the words National and Leadership. This is a very competitive program and the things that rise to the top are generally going to be the things that have a clear, straightforward path to making a national impact. So spend a lot of time thinking about what that national impact would be and how you would measure the change a project could make.

Emily: The Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program focuses on building human capital capacity in libraries and archives, through continuing education, as well as through formal LIS master’s and doctoral programs. Naturally, when we talk about “21st century skills” in this program, a lot of capabilities related to technology and the national digital platform surface. Projects in this program are most successful when they show awareness of work that has come before, and explain how they are building upon that previous work. Similarly, and as with all of our programs, reviewers are looking to see how the results of the project will be shared with the field.

For example, the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) has been very successful with Laura Bush peer reviewers. The original Library of Congress NDSR built on the Library’s existing DPOE curriculum. Subsequently, the New York and Boston NDSR programs adapted the Library of Congress’s model based on resident feedback and other findings. Now we’re seeing a new distributed version of the model being piloted by WGBH. This is a great example of a project that is replicable and iterative. Each organization modified it based on their specific situation, contributing to an overall vision of the program and increasing the impact of IMLS funding.

The Sparks! grants are a little different than the grants of other programs because the funding cap for this program is much lower, at $25,000, and has no cost share requirement. Sparks! is intended to fund projects that are innovative and potentially somewhat risky. It’s a great opportunity for prototyping new tools, exploring new collaborations, and testing new services. As a special funding opportunity within the IMLS National Leadership Grants for Libraries program, Sparks! guidelines also call for potential for broad impact and innovative approaches. Funded projects are required to submit a final report in the form of a white paper that is published on the IMLS website, in order to ensure that these new approaches are shared with the community.

Maura Marx, Acting Director of IMLS, wrapping up. Courtesy of IMLS.
Maura Marx, Acting Director of IMLS, wrapping up at IMLS Focus. Courtesy of IMLS.

Erin: I’m sure many of our readers have applied for IMLS grants in previous cycles. Could you talk a bit about the current proposal process?  Is there any other info you’d like to share with our readers about it?

Emily: The traditional application process, and the one currently used in the Sparks! program, is that applicants submit a full proposal at the time of the application deadline. This includes a narrative, a complete budget and budget justification, staff resumes, and a great deal of other documentation. With Sparks!, these applications are sent directly to peer reviewers in the field, and funding decisions are made based on their scores.

We’ve made some significant changes to the National Leadership Grants and Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program. For FY16, both programs will require the submission of only a two-page preliminary proposal, along with a couple of standard forms. The preliminary proposals will be sent to peer reviewers, and IMLS will hold a panel meeting with the reviewers to select the most promising proposals. That subset of applicants is then invited to submit full proposals, with a deadline six to eight weeks later. The full proposals go through another round of panel review before funding decisions are made. We’re also adding a second annual application deadline for each program, currently slated for February 2016.

This process was piloted with the National Leadership Grants this past year, and we’ve seen a number of substantial benefits for applicants. Of course, the workload of creating a two-page preliminary proposal is much less than for the full proposal. But for the applicants who are invited to submit a full proposal, also gain the peer reviewers’ comments to help them strengthen their applications. And for unsuccessful applicants, the second deadline makes it possible for them to revise and resubmit their proposal. We’ve found that the resulting full proposals are much more competitive, and reviewers are still able to provide substantial feedback for unsuccessful applicants.

Erin: Now for the quintessential interview question: where do you see the platform in five years?

Trevor: I think we can make a lot of progress in five years. I can see a series of interconnected national networks and projects where different libraries, archives, museums and related non-profits are taking the lead on aspects directly connected to the core of their missions, but benefiting from the work of all the other institutions, too. The idea that there is one big library with branches all over the world is something that I think can increasingly become a reality. In sharing that digital infrastructure, we can build on the emerging value proposition of libraries identified in the Aspen Institute’s report on public libraries (PDF).  By pooling those efforts, and establishing and building on radical collaborations, we can turn the corner on the digital era. We can stop playing catch up and have a seat at the table. We can make sure that our increasingly digital future is shaped by values at the core of libraries and archives around access, equity, openness, privacy, preservation and the integrity of information.


  1. When considering curating digital content the opportunities – and the challenges – are massive. As we move further and further into the digital realm it becomes clearer that innovations need to be made in terms of how to distribute content and also how to choose what to store. I read with interest the grant opportunities and hope to be able to participate in some of these programs.

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