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Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Makes Its Debut
Posted On April 22, 2013
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Everything seemed to be on schedule for the long-planned Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to make its public debut with a 2-day series of events on April 18-19 at the Boston Public Library. Then, disaster struck Boston on Monday, April 15—a very public and destructive bombing attack occurred during the Boston Marathon on the street in front of the Boston Public Library. The event, which was to be convened by the DPLA Secretariat at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and co-hosted by the Boston Public Library, was quickly canceled.

The DPLA Launch was to have included a brief working day on Thursday, April 18, followed by a formal reception featuring presentations and a series of interactive exhibits showcasing content from many partners, including the Digital Hubs and Europeana. On Friday, April 19, the DPLA was to convene a focused half-day plenary meeting highlighting the DPLA’s progress and potential.

Dan Cohen, DPLA executive editor, posted a notice of cancellation on the site but noted that, “[W]e have already begun to plan an even larger event for the fall, one that will highlight our continued growth and emergence from the beta phase, and that also can serve as our first annual DPLAfest."

However, the site said that the new DPLA beta site of its portal and discovery platform would have a virtual launch as scheduled on April 18. I checked at noon EDT and found “The page you are looking for is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.” Even a press release from Europeana received a few minutes later linked to the same message. But within a half-hour, the new site was available—see the screenshot—a press release was issued, and, Cohen posted a message, “Welcome to the Digital Public Library of America.”

It’s not very often you get to build a new library. Together, that’s what we will begin to do today. Starting with over two million items, each with its own special story and significance, the Digital Public Library of America will now begin to assemble the riches of our country’s libraries, archives, and museums, and connect them with the public.

As Mercy Pilkington blogged at GoodEreader, “A group of private individuals has apparently done what the government and Google have not been able to do: establish a national digital public library.”

What Is DPLA?

The DPLA is a large-scale, collaborative project working toward “the creation of a unique and consolidated digital library platform, ensuring America’s cultural and scientific record is free and publicly accessible online through a single access point, available anytime and anywhere.” The new portal delivers millions of materials found in American archives, libraries, museums, and cultural heritage institutions to students, teachers, scholars, and the public. Far more than a search engine, the portal provides innovative ways to search and scan through its united collection of distributed resources. Special features include a dynamic map, a timeline that allows users to visually browse by year or decade, a feature to browse items by subject, and an app library that provides access to applications and tools created by external developers using DPLA’s open data.

DPLA represents “[m]any decades in the visioning, two and a half years in the planning, with a small steering committee and an incubation hub at the helm, and featuring dozens of great libraries, universities and archives involved in hundreds of meetings, workshops, plenary meetings, and hackathons, attracting thousands of volunteers backed by millions of foundation and government dollars,” according to Doron Weber, vice chair of the DPLA Steering Committee and vice president of programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a major, active funder of the project.

The portal for providing access to resources is just one of three main elements of the DPLA. It is also “A platform that enables new and transformative uses of our digitized cultural heritage.” With an application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, the DPLA can be used by software developers, researchers, and others to create novel environments for learning, tools for discovery, and engaging apps. Third, it has set itself up to be “An advocate for a strong public option in the twenty-first century.” Accessing materials for free through public libraries has been a central part of our culture. “The DPLA will seek to multiply openly accessible materials to strengthen the public option that libraries represent in their communities.”

At this point, the DPLA is limiting its reach to material in the public domain—books, images, sound files, videos, and other digital artifacts that are not encumbered by copyright restrictions. John Palfry, president of DPLA’s board of directors and chair of its steering committee, explains that, “This initial focus is a disappointment to some, who see the DPLA as a way to address the ebook lending crisis that faces public libraries. Writing as just one DPLA participant, it is my hope that the DPLA would be able to find a way to help make in-copyright works available, through libraries, in a lawful manner. Very smart lawyers and other experts are looking hard at this question and examining possible approaches to lawful sharing of digitized materials in copyright through the DPLA.”

Palfry also stressed the future potential for using the open platform.

The most exciting idea is that we cannot begin to imagine the extraordinary things that librarians and their many partners can accomplish with this open platform and such extraordinarily rich materials, from so many institutions large and small, together and at the ready. We will create new knowledge together and make accessible, free to all, information that people need in order to thrive in a democracy.

Partners Are a Critical Component of DPLA

DPLA announced its collaboration with Europeana in October 2011. Since then, the DPLA has worked closely with Europeana, adopting the Europeana Data Model, sharing metadata expertise, inspiration, and lessons learned, and working to make the two digital datasets interoperable. In December 2012, as a result of collaboration with curators, content partners, project staff and others, the DPLA and Europeana launched a joint virtual exhibition—Leaving Europe: A new life in America.

The National Archives is a leading content provider to the DPLA and is part of the initial launch. The DPLA includes 1.2 million digital copies from the National Archives catalog, including our nation’s founding documents, photos from the Documerica Photography Project of the 1970s, World War II posters, Mathew Brady Civil War photographs, and documents that define our human and civil rights.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) is partnering with the DPLA to provide online access to thousands of historic materials archived at the library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. As part of this cooperative partnership, NYPL will contribute images and data from two of its significant collections chronicling American history: The Thomas Addis Emmet Collection, documenting the founding and early years of the U.S., and The Lawrence H. Slaughter collection of English maps, charts, atlases, globes, and books relating to Colonial North America.

The University of Virginia Library recently announced that it is contributing the Holsinger Studio Collection. The collection is a photographic record of life in Charlottesville and Albemarle County from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Digital collections that are contributed to the DPLA are searchable through the online library, but they are still hosted at the institutions that contribute them. So, a user who discovered the Holsinger Studio Collection through DPLA would actually access and download the images through the University of Virginia Library’s Virgo system. Bradley Daigle, the university's director of digital curation services, said, “People can access much of this content already, but participating in DPLA will create more visibility for our content. As a result, U.Va. will be seen by more people as a source for finding digital content and unique materials.”

The Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is joining with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to provide online access to thousands of historical materials archived at Illinois. As part of the cooperative partnership, the university library will contribute metadata for 15 of its digital image collections.

There are many other partners already on board—a list is available here. It includes the Smithsonian Institution, the Biodiversity Heritage LibraryARTstor, and more. The DPLA is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Arcadia Fund, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

StackLife for the DPLA

The DPLA generously funded its development, but the newly launched StackLife was developed independently of the DPLA as an example of how people can create their own “front end” to the DPLA’s collection, mashing it up with other collections. That makes the DPLA especially useful, since it doesn’t have to supply the only way of accessing its data. StackLife was created by Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab

StackLife provides a way of browsing books that always shows you books in the context of other books—or, as we usually call them, shelves. It turns the shelves sideways so you can read the spines. The three collections currently mashed together in StackLife are the 107,990 items from the Biodiversity Heritage Library that are in the DPLA’s collection, 541,305 volumes from the Internet Archive’s Open Library, and 1,094,245 volumes from The HathiTrust

StackLife DPLA extends a version of StackLife created for the Harvard Library, adding social features and including only works that are readable online. The Harvard version lets users browse more than 12 million physical and digital items in the Harvard collection, and it includes tools of use to a research community. Both versions are open source projects.


A few people pointed out bugs and inconsistencies—something to be expected in a beta product. Yes, there’s a lot more work to be done—so don’t be shy about sharing your comments with the DPLA.

Others raved about the serendipity of stumbling on collections they didn’t know existed. One of my favorite comments about the launch comes from Joseph Volpe, writing at Engadget.

Remember when the internet was hailed as the “information superhighway” and then we all realized it was just some pot hole-filled, five-lane freeway overrun with humanity’s virtual flotsam and jetsam? Well, now there’s a virtual institution to gather the best cultural bits that float to the top, make ‘em freely accessible and archive it all for the perpetuity of the digital age… So, there you have it, folks—a highbrow antidote to the rampant disinformation made possible by Google search.

The comments I’ve seen were mostly positive—and many wished the new venture well. Mario Aguilar, writing at Gizmodo, said, “The DPLA is still very much a beta, and as it adds more partner institutions and builds out its technology the potential for the utopian project is huge. But beyond the impressive use of technology, we should note that this work is important. Information portals like the DP.LA will be an essential public service as people increasingly consume images and text digitally and online. Godspeed.”

Jonathan Gray, director of Policy and Ideas at the Open Knowledge Foundation, offered advice for the next step for the DPLA. He wrote in its blog:

Open knowledge isn’t just about stuff being able to freely move around on networks of computers and devices. It is also about people. We think there is a significant opportunity to involve students, scholars, artists, developers, designers and the general public in the curation and re-presentation of our cultural and historical past… We hope that the DPLA takes a proactive approach to encouraging the use of the digital material that it federates, to ensure that it is as impactful and valuable to as many people as possible.”

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

Related Articles

6/16/2011Update on the Digital Public Library of America
11/1/2012Concrete Steps Toward a Digital Public Library of America
9/10/2013HathiTrust Records Go Live on the DPLA
11/5/2013DPLA Launches Bookshelf Feature
9/9/2014The Knight Foundation Welcomes Ideas to Strengthen Libraries' Roles in the Digital Age
9/18/2014The DPLA Adds Medical and Governmental Sources
2/17/2015DPLA Updates KriKri Metadata Aggregation Engine
3/17/2015DPLA Moves Forward With Public Library Partnership Project

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