What kind of national digital library system—or systems, plural—should the U.S. create? Read Parts One and Two of a new series where Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium delves into the major issues.

Is the Harvard-incubated Digital Public Library of America the solution with its “one big tent” approach for public and academic libraries? With museums even included?

Or do we need intertwined but separate public and academic systems, so literacy issues, K-12 needs, related digital divide matters, and other national concerns do not fall through the cracks? Could a national digital library endowment, started mostly with philanthropic donations to get around the current fiscal mayhem in Washington, be among the revenue sources for both systems?

How to balance different priorities? Should digital libraries primarily be virtual places for scholarship and high culture? Or should they also be potential life-changers in an America where, as of a year ago, nearly one-fifth of our children were living in poverty?

And what about public libraries as centers of community life, beloved sources of popular recreation, and reliable service institutions for the masses, vs. the focus of many academics on arcane research and high-stakes experimentation?

Jim Duncan is superbly equipped to speak out on those issues and others, as a former academic librarian with digital experience on university campuses, not just as the leader of a major state consortium serving public libraries. The holder of a BA in English from Grinnell College and an MLIS from the University of Iowa, Duncan was honored in 2011 with a “Mover and Shaker” award from Library Journal, in the “Community Builders” category. He became executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium after serving as director of networking and resource sharing for the Colorado State Library.

In Part One of Duncan’s two-part series for LibraryCity, he analyzes the DPLA from a public library perspective. Then in Part Two, he tells how the DPLA could be the start of a world-class academic digital system, while a separate public system worked closely with the academic system but focused on needs beyond those of the university and research communities. Duncan may also write further on digital library issues for LibraryCity within the limits of his schedule.

Ideally Duncan’s current series will help lay to rest the misconceptions of certain National Public Radio listeners. “What the typical public library user wants and needs…it tends to be contemporary content, best-sellers,” he told NPR Correspondent Laura Sydell in an August 19 segment on the DPLA for All Things Considered. “That’s what they’re coming to the public library to check out.” Those words, however, were just one quote from a 30-minute conversation that Ms. Sydell had to condense for airtime-related reasons. In the series, Duncan offers his views in more detail. They reflect his academic library work at the University of Iowa, balanced alongside his experience with and understanding of public library needs from having served such libraries for the past eight years.  He envisions public libraries as continuing to serve mass interests, including those of K-12, and he values recreational reading and family literacy. But like LibraryCity, he also wants much more academic content in public library collections, even the highly specialized variety, and favors universal access to the academic system.

Please note that Jim Duncan’s LibraryCity series conveys only his personal opinions, not necessarily those of the Colorado Library Consortium, its board, or other organizations with which he is associated. Duncan can be found on LinkedIn (jamesmduncan) or Twitter (@duncanjlib).


This CreativeCommons-licensed post originally appeared in slightly different form on the LibraryCity site.


  1. So happy to see TeleRead publishing Jim Duncan’s must-read series. As is made clear in my introduction, his librarian credentials are impeccable, and I hope that the state governments, Washington and the American library establishment will pay attention. Google’s donations of thousands of tablets to New York-area libraries make Duncan’s insights and vision all the more timely. See:


    I applaud Google’s generosity, and the interest of the participating NY libraries in digital divide issues–-one area where the DPLA could be doing so much more than it is now. Let’s hope that the tablet program will be run well, and that the work there can be scaled up, with more to come from Google, other companies, philanthropies, and public sources. The amount of money spent so far is small compared to the actual needs out there. Not to mention the issue of paying for content for the tablet users to access in the interest of family literacy, recreational reading and other causes that the DPLA has more or less neglected. A national digital library endowment and a genuine public digital library system answerable to local librarians and educators, as well as library patrons outside the elite–not just a DPLA-style academic system alone–would be at least partial solutions.

    David Rothman,
    Founder, TeleRead
    Cofounder, LibraryCity.org

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