News & Opinion

Launching The Digital Public Library of America

by on April 18, 2013

Today, April 18, 2013, marks the official launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). The DPLA is a large-scale national project aimed at “mak[ing] the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.

DPLA In a Nutshell
The DPLA project took root in Fall 2010, when leaders from multiple institutions decided to work together on developing “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in the current and future generations.

You may be thinking, “Doesn’t this already exist?” In some sense, yes. Various initiatives aimed at establishing a national digital archive are in existence, such as the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, Project Gutenberg, and the World Digital Library. And, of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the Google Books Library Project. As you may know, Google’s attempt to digitize and make available all of the world’s books came to an end with the advent of lawsuits based on disregard of copyright laws. The current goal of their project is to provide bibliographic information and snippets of books, rather than the books themselves.

What distinguishes the Digital Public Library of America from these other efforts, however, is its aim to serve not as a database or portal or digital repository, but as a large-scale digital public library to preserve U.S. history and enhance the knowledge of the collective U.S. for current and future generations.

For a comprehensive look at the mission, history and future of DPLA, check out Robert Darnton’s recent profile in The New York Review of Books. As he points out, “digital empowerment at the grassroots level will reinforce the building of an integrated collection at the national level, and the national collection will be linked with those of other countries.” The strength and the scope of the DPLA collection are, therefore, highly dependent on contributions from participants at the local level.

And this is bigger than just the U.S. As Darnton points out, the DPLA infrastructure is designed “to be interoperable with that of Europeana, an aggregator [...] which coordinates linkages among the collections of twenty-seven European countries.”

Challenges vs. Possibilities

Certainly, there will be challenges to be faced along the way. Issues relating to copyright, funding, and maintaining the delicate balance between the needs of general society vs. the needs of participating institutions, to name a few.

Along with these challenges, however, lies great potential. As a genealogy librarian, I am intrigued by the possibilities a digital national library offers for family history research, especially for genealogists combing the records for out-of-state ancestors.

I am also excited by the impact this may have on the education of children and youth, particularly with regards to information accessibility. For example, the DPLA may provide access to information that supports and enriches the education of students who do not otherwise have access to well-stocked libraries or electronic resources.

Call for Participation

What are your thoughts? Is the creation of a national—or international—digital library a vital initiative? What steps do you think should be taken to ensure the longevity and continued relevance of this project?

Are you interested in participating in the DPLA? There are a number of ways for libraries or individuals to get involved. And if you’re interested in learning more in person, the DPLA staff will be in Cambridge, MA on April 18 to celebrate the launch of the DPLA website, so please drop by! And please be sure to check out the DPLA website, which goes live at noon ET on April 18. After all, this is a venture that will document and preserve our current society for the generations to come.


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