Obama’s Presidential Library Is Already DigitalBreaking News
tags: presidential libraries, archives, Obama, digital history
Dan Cohen is the Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University.
As the highly anticipated Obama Presidential Library in Chicago morphed into the Obama Presidential Center—without a place to hold the records of his administration—reactions ranged from slight confusion to rote dismissiveness. “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t” led the coverage in The New York Times. Philip Terzian complained in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that what was proposed was “not, in fact, a library at all.”
Instead of the physical research library that 13 previous presidents had established as the centerpiece of their buildings, there would be a digitallibrary, providing online access to Barack Obama’s years in office. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson, registered his concern: “I don’t want anyone deciding what’s going to be digital.”
Is a digital library a library? This is not an abstract koan for me. As the founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, I worked with thousands of civic-minded librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and technologists—and the nonprofit and governmental institutions that housed them—to provide broad access to tens of millions of digitized works of literature, art, audio, and video. Six years after its launch, DPLA is clearly and robustly a library, albeit one that leverages the characteristics of computer networks and the power of digital media and technology to synthesize and serve materials from multiple locations. In my current role as the dean of the library at Northeastern University, I oversee both large physical spaces and vast online resources, and can identify significant advantages to each.