John Bracken

Our Civic Trust

Air Date: July 2, 2019

John Bracken, executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, discusses the vital role of libraries to preserve democracy in the digital age.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. We’ve been tracking the progress of the Digital Public Library of America since it’s genesis: first with its founding visionaries, Robert Darnton and John Palfrey, then with its inaugural executive director Dan Cohen, and today with its second and current leader, John Bracken. As I described it then, the DPLA is a one-stop portal for primary sources from the nation’s archives, libraries and museums, a public option to access the full breadth of human expression and American cultural heritage. DPLA’s aspiration is to be a unifying national library and it could be critical to answering that question of how our democracy can function successfully again in the digital age and how the common civic experience of libraries will help us achieve trust anew. Welcome, John, a privileged to meet you finally.

BRACKEN: Thanks for having me. This is great to be here.

HEFFNER: And you bring a wealth of experience at the leading foundations in this country to DPLA, MacArthur, Ford, Knight, they’re all centrally trying to tackle this issue of trust or the lack of trust in our democracy. Why can libraries today, in 2019 be pivotal to answering that question?

BRACKEN: That’s a great question. You know, and it’s part of the reason why I’m so excited about being at the Digital Public Library of America. Libraries are unique in the American experience right now, right, at this moment when we’re worried about the gaps between civic conversations, when the moments where we have so few places for public space, public conversations, and the moments that we’re dealing with the disruption of the information age, this overload of information. Libraries provide a solution to all of that, right, it’s a safe place that are welcoming to anyone.

They’re everywhere. They’re in very neighborhood in this country. There are eight times as many libraries, than McDonald’s in this country. And they’re staffed by a set of trained professionals who specialize in information curation. And so at this moment in time when we’re having existential questions about what American democracy in a digital age should look like, or can it even exist in some cases, libraries I think are essential tools and resources and librarians are essential voices to those conversations.

HEFFNER: You say there are more libraries in American than McDonald’s, but have the library shrunk, the number of libraries shrunk.


HEFFNER: Relative to a decade ago or two decades ago, how has it fared relative to, to bookstores, for instance?

BRACKEN: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think, relative to bookstores we’re doing really well, right? I think libraries have always been under resourced in this country, public libraries in particular, and we work with public libraries who work with academic libraries, we work with museums. They are incredibly under resourced at this time. At the same time, we’re being asked to do more, right? You look at public libraries are being asked now to focus on early childhood education in ways that we didn’t in the past. We’re being asked to help be a bridge to digital literacy and digital tools. Libraries are providing food. The Cleveland Public Library has a lunch program, right, during the summers, the Philadelphia; the Free Library of Philadelphia is providing healthcare services and cooking classes. And so at a time when so much of the civic sector is retrenching and shrinking, more and more demands are being put on libraries at the same time that public investment is decreasing.

HEFFNER: Has survival been dependent on socioeconomic factors. In other words, we know that in Philadelphia and Cleveland, Toledo, Wichita, they have their public libraries, but those communities that have suffered in response to the death of manufacturing, what we hope to be a renewal of jobs in those communities, does, it depend on the size of, of wealth.

BRACKEN: There are variables outside of income that impact the field. So for instance, the state of Minnesota is unique, as you might not be surprised to hear, uniquely invested in their libraries and their cultural institutions. The State Archive of Minnesota was founded before the state was founded, by the same person, by the way. And so there are communities, Ohio is another community. There are states and regions that have for a variety, I think of historical, cultural, economic reasons have been deeply invested in their libraries. And I think part of the challenge we have in this moment is helping the libraries that have been doing such good work for so long, tell their stories in new ways and help make clear these variety of services and opportunities they provide to citizens that a lot of Americans aren’t aware of.

HEFFNER: How has your working relationship with these libraries evolved? We hosted John Palfrey and Dan Cohen? So if we look at the trajectory of growth for the Digital Public Library of America,


HEFFNER: How have you evolved since 2013, 2014, 2015?

BRACKEN: One is we know that we don’t succeed on our own unless our partners and the organizations we’re working with succeed,


BRACKEN: So DPLA on its own, without the success of libraries across the U.S. isn’t going to matter. Practically that means things like the partnership we just launched with New York Public Library, and, and libraries across the country, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where we’re going to build together for and by libraries, a national digital platform, starting with eBooks that’s going to enable Americans through their libraries to engage with digital content in ways that are curated and produced by libraries and librarians.

HEFFNER: Now, how can they, if they’re watching this at home and want to skip that step because they enjoy that virtual connection and they want to engage with the Digital Public Library directly.


HEFFNER: How do they do that?

BRACKEN: You can come to DP dot LA. Right. And that’s our home base. That’s where we’ve collected from our partners, our 4,000 partners across the U.S. It’s where we’ve collected over 32 million items that are of historical curated material that had been produced by librarians. And you can come in and search and engage with that. The key,

HEFFNER: These are photographs,

BRACKEN: Photographs, books, you know, texts

HEFFNER: Because when Dan Cohen was here, I implored him to think of it this way, and you know, this is your territory, but we’re more and more conscious of this. What happened between his appearance and today is that social media platforms recognize that in their photographic and video space, if they weren’t integrating the foundational facts, then people were missing something. So now if you follow YouTube or Google searches, you will sometimes see integrated the factual basis for that video or song or photograph. And I said to Dan when he was here, can’t you take all these resources and really make it a visual, video based Wikipedia experience so that you have a distinctive opportunity in the field to go and be the destination for folks who want facts and information and the purest form of that in the primary sources.

BRACKEN: I would say the biggest change over the last six or seven years since our founding is that we now have a much better understanding, we collectively as a society the challenges that the social platforms that you’ve mentioned present to our civil society, right? I mean, we’ve gone through an experience over the last few years where we learned that those platforms that you’re talking about, that all of us, myself included, have been so excited about, were weaponized to counter American democracy, right? The American democratic experience have been actively undermined by these tools. And we know from the research of people like Dana Boyd and Susan Crawford and others, the degree of, of challenge that those platforms are still wrestling with. And that integration, as you’re saying, between the, where the platforms are starting and our behavior on the platforms and a fact based reality is still an area of conflict.

We’re not sure how that’s going to play out.

HEFFNER: I’m also saying that folks would go to the library or bookstore and sometimes just check out the magazine section. And the fact that we have such ease in a hyper-connected Internet space to find something instantly has always struck me that the absence of a visual or video based Wikipedia gave YouTube a lane to say, we’re going to give people access to video and we don’t care if it’s conspiracy theory. And another thing that I’d like you to expound on is this idea that when you go into a library, there’s an expectation of trust both from the consumer and the administrator of the library that we are differentiating between fact and fiction. And so a library does that. A bookstore does that. YouTube doesn’t do that. Facebook doesn’t do that. Twitter doesn’t do this.

BRACKEN: That’s right. And that’s exactly why I think the voices and the experiences and the professional practices of the librarians, of the people who staff our civic institutions that have served us from our inception need to be at the table as we’re having these debates about the role of the platforms, about the role of digital culture in our society. And we haven’t been at the table.

HAFFNER: Can DPLA be that alternative to a YouTube or even a Wikipedia?

BRACKEN: So one of the things that if you track Wikipedia, one of the things that you know, that they struggle with is ensuring that they have the images open source available, Creative Commons images to backup their entries. And that’s a big gap. We have 32 million items in our collection through our partners. And so we have been working with the Wikimedia Foundation to develop better tools to match the resources we have and make sure that’s backing up both the images and some of the references that exist in Wikipedia.

I think Wikipedia is a unique civic asset that we have to invest in, all of us together. And so I’m really excited that they’re a partner of ours. YouTube is a different horse altogether. And I think, I mean I think one thing we need to do as a society and we’re beginning to see indications of this, is encourage the platforms that have made so much money over the last few years and that to some degrees not always benefited our society, encourage them and give them avenues to invest in civil society, whether it’s in Wikimedia, whether it’s in there better ways to invest in their local libraries. Some of them have done some really interesting projects. We’re sitting here in New York. Google has invested in different projects that New York public library has done around enabling the lending out of Wi-Fi hotspots for instance. I think we need to see more of that and we need to do a better job of bridging those two worlds. And I do think DPLA is in a place to help make those conversations.

HEFFNER: And I think, you know, when I use the word alternative, I mean given the fact that we live with a generation coming of age with Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, that may not necessarily in every situation had the patience or wherewithal to read to read a whole Wikipedia entry or even a paragraph. And we’ll want the sources that sometimes can empower the user or viewer or reader or historian to just see it in the flesh and understand it from the primary source and that’s what I mean by alternative, which is for someone who doesn’t want to read in the traditional sense, you have the primary sources when it comes to any search term in American history, to give them power.

BRACKEN: Totally. And, and look at the moment that we’re living in where so much of our pop culture experience, I mean I have a nine year old daughter. Her first real engagement with American history was Hamilton, right. We have a generation who grew up with Hamilton, so historical material that was available that people can build off of, tell stories; tell narratives that are relevant to our lives today. I think the potential there is great.

HEFFNER: So tell us also about your plans for 2019 and beyond.

BRACKEN: We’re partnering with 41 state based organizations, so by my math we’re missing nine plus a couple of territories. So we are the Digital Public Library of America. We know we need to work with every institution that wants to have their material online. We need to create a pathway to that. So we’re working to do that both at the state level and on different type of topic areas, really trying to make sure that everyone who wants to engage with us can. At the same time I think we are really focused on ensuring that we are the Digital Public Library of America. We’re living in a moment today in 2019 we were talking about what it is to be an American in different ways. We know that lots of communities have been shut out from the types of institutions that we represent and talk through over and from some of the stories that we help uplift. And so we’re committed to ensuring that we do a better job of work identifying, working with, partnering, being an ally of communities that have historically not always been at the table and making sure that their stories are, are seen and heard and uplifted.

HEFFNER: And is that what has been the greatest challenge so far in your capacity as executive director, how would you describe your, the obstacles you’re facing?

BRACKEN: I will be a rote nonprofit executive director and any one I think who’s honest will say the toughest challenge is, you know, making sure you have the resources to do what you want …

HEFFNER: Of course. But at the time that Bob Darnden was here, and John and Dan too yeah, there were some legal issues that you were facing, with respect to adopting a common set of values and principles for the sharing


HEFFNER: And archival opportunities of DPLA specifically when it comes to Creative Commons and working out the logistics is one of the reasons that you kind of morphed away from the Google

BRACKEN: Precisely

HEFFNER: partnership and

BRACKEN: Precisely

HEFFNER: Are operating now independently with these partnerships, have those legal concerns dissolved or are they still …

BRACKEN: At the practical level, yes, I would say at the larger societal level, we haven’t fully grappled with these questions of copyright in a digital age, of fair use in a digital age, how do we ensure that we have as open access to materials as we can balancing the interest of copyright holders?

HEFFNER: And has that stymied your growth at all in this year of 2019 or is there enough intellectual property that you really can build a Digital Library of America, not withstanding copywriter ownership?

BRACKEN: Yes, yes. No, we’ve had room to run. And that, you know, that’s why we’re so excited to have the set of partnerships that we’ve been able to build. I do think though, there is a larger set of questions that to some degree have been put on the backburner over the last 10 years of how do we ensure, take the question of orphan works, right? So these are books or other cultural materials that still might be in copyright, but where the author is maybe can’t be identified or there’s no clear ownership stake.

I think that there’s lots of potential for conversations about ways to ensure that creators are compensated in a just way, but also creating pathways so that materials that aren’t available digitally can be in some way. And that’s a part of the thrust of the national eBooks platform that we’re doing with New York Public Library.

HEFFNER: Can you expound on that for folks who do read their books digitally,


HEFFNER: What you’re making available to people…

BRACKEN: So we’re taking advantage of what New York Public Library has started over the last several years, which is building a mobile app to enable librarians to curate their own book experiences, first it’ll be eBooks, audio books are going to be next. To ensure, I mean, New York Public Library has been so committed to ensuring that as all libraries are, that the benefits of the digital age don’t just adhere to the, to the top, but that they reach everywhere.


BRACKEN: And for institutions committed to literacy, we know that increasingly digital content is a part of that experience, both for all age groups. And it’s vital that we as libraries be at the table as those platforms that are going to deliver knowledge in the future are being built and designed. And so that’s what we’re, we’re doing. And it’s part of a national collaboration. It’s not just one entity or two entities. We’re working with libraries across the country to curate and build a mobile tool, a marketplace for librarians to access and purchase materials, and services for libraries that want to provide direct access to their, to their patrons.

HEFFNER: You mentioned literacy, American heritage, I referenced several minutes ago, the unique mandate of the library to ensure integrity of fact versus fiction and to stipulate what is fact and what is fiction. When it comes to the prejudice against the intellectual establishment, we hope that literacy is not associated with a liberal or conservative group-think and, and that we can identify this next generation and American’s desire to be informed through libraries and primary resources, independent of a political motive.

BRACKEN: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: Are we still able to draw that conclusion that literacy is literacy?

BRACKEN: Boy, I hope so. I mean, I, you know, I’m an optimist. That’s why I’m doing this work and I believe in American democracy and I believe we’ve only just begun with this experiment.

HEFFNER: But do you have that concern that literacy is being

BRACKEN: yes, I think so. It’s made manifest. So libraries are among the most trusted institutions left in the country, right, when we’ve seen trust and things like newspapers and the courts and congress decrease libraries, the fire department and the military are three of the institutions that have maintained trust. That’s not going to be evergreen. I mean there are, some of our partners have created research that shows that’s beginning actually did fall. And we, this last fall we saw some public votes go against libraries in a couple of states where that hadn’t happened very often before. So we have a moment, right, there’s a moment now where we have to lean in and be active in the debates and the conversations and take advantage of our unique place in American society. And if we miss that, that, and if libraries and literacy become contested space, I think it’s going to take us generations to get back to that.

HEFFNER: Where do you draw the line when it comes to the, to the politicization of literacy in asserting these two points, which is you can have facts that are objective facts and you can have a multiplicity of interpretations of what American heritage means. Where are you driving that wedge or where do you see societaly in these communities, Cleveland, Philadelphia that you mentioned. Where do you see there being a kind of defining line that’s being drawn to say, you know, literacy up to this point is un-politicized and objective?

BRACKEN: Yeah, I think one way to ensure that, to minimize that risk, is to make sure you have a big table, right, and by virtue of, it’s not an acting independently, but having 4,000 institutions that in some way shape or form, 4,000 communities representing themselves in our dialogues and our conversations that enables us if we’re doing our job right, to make sure that we’re hearing and being inclusive of variety of perspectives. As to where you draw the line I think, you know, you bring people to the table. I’m not as worried that literacy itself has been politicized. You look at where libraries resonate across the country, questions of entrepreneurship, right, public libraries are the number one place people go to begin their businesses, right, find out patent calls and things like that. Second early childhood education, early childhood literacy. These are things that appeal across a spectrum, across all of our different spectrums. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to lean in and tell those stories.

HEFFNER: An example to close, and I know you’re an optimist like John and Bob and Dan before you, but to close, let me just give you an example. So the fact is that no president in our history up until Donald Trump has called the free press an enemy of the people. No American president has uttered that phrase. And that’s just the fact, Jack and folks around that table may not want to hear that fact. And that idea of challenging the legitimacy of the free press or libraries is confounding because it is inconsistent with freedom. It is inconsistent with the First Amendment. And it is inconsistent with our modern understanding of liberal democracy versus illiberal authoritarianism.


HEFFNER: So how do you deal with that conundrum in a space of a, of a library or for that matter societaly when someone wants to object to the pure and simple fact that only Donald Trump has said that. That doesn’t mean other presidents have not criticized the press, but in that kind of blatant emphatic notion, he’s made that comment. And the 44 presidents prior to him never did.

BRACKEN: Yeah. So just to give you a story related to affirm your point libraries in our network have had people come into them and saying, you know, ask them for a material and then say, oh no, I don’t want it. Don’t give me the Washington Post, right. That’s, that’s fake news. And so this is contested space for libraries. I think if truth and facts and inclusivity are radical acts, that library is a pretty radical experiment, right? As my friend Andrew Rasiej who lives around the corner here and runs the Personal Democracy Forum, says, if libraries didn’t exist today, they would not be allowed to come into existence. Right. And so we just as American democracy is, libraries themselves as a set of institutions are radical experiment.

I believe they’re incredibly adaptive, right, we started libraries existed before Gutenberg, right, and now we’re existing after Tim Berners-Lee’s inventions, right, and I think if we lean in to that possibility and make sure we’re at the table for those types of discussions and debates and that we’re not turning away from those discussions, I think we’re going to leave the country a better place and be, and be an asset as we come through this come through this moment in American history.

HEFFNER: Very well, John. But let me just ask you to nail it down. What does that library and say when the constituent says to her, or him, the Washington Post, don’t refer that to me. It’s fake news. What does that librarian say?

BRACKEN: That’s, that’s an active discussion in the space right now. We’re having that discussion about how do we, how do we do that?

Well, right. One version, one line of thought is that means we need to do a better job at early childhood education. We needed to answer that question that your user or we need to answer that in third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade.

HEFFNER: But in that moment, what do you, what would be your suggestion for that librarian or speaking of the situations you’ve described, what are some possible answers to that constituent or responses to that constituent?

BRACKEN: I don’t think the, so the folks that I talk to and my sort of role models, they don’t back down from the discussion and you certainly don’t compromise on your values and you don’t compromise on facts. But I also think as any good professional civil servant, you need to meet people where they are and start where they are. And so if that means finding, you know, another entity that doesn’t have the brand Washington Post‘s that struck, then you, you help engage with them there. But I don’t think none of the librarians I know or giving up to this fight.

HEFFNER: John, thank you for being here.

BRACKEN: Thank you

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.