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Update on the Digital Public Library of America
Posted On June 16, 2011
The dream of a national digital public library is inching closer to the planning stage. The Berkman Center at Harvard University convened a large and diverse group of stakeholders to define the scope, architecture, costs, and administration for a proposed Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). This initiative was launched in December 2010 with generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Since then it has pulled together a steering committee, described the initiative, launched a planning initiative wiki, established “workstreams,” elicited a lively and sometimes quite heated debate on the DPLA’s listserv, and given many people hope for the broad, ambitious, collaborative effort.

John Palfrey, the vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School and the co-director of the Berkman Center, says, “The DPLA is in its early planning stages, but the core idea is well-established at this stage. We aspire to establish a system whereby all Americans can gain access to information and knowledge in digital formats in a manner that is “free to all.” It is by no means a plan to replace libraries, but rather to create a common resource for libraries and patrons of all types.”

Concept Note

In March 2011, the Steering Committee drafted a Concept Note to describe the initiative, on which they seek comment.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all. By adhering to the fundamental principle of free and universal access to knowledge, it will promote education in the broadest sense of the term. That is, it will function as an online library for students of all ages, from grades K-12 to postdoctoral researchers and anyone seeking self-instruction; it will be a deep resource for community colleges, vocational schools, colleges, universities, and adult education programs; it will supplement the services of public libraries in every corner of the country; and it will satisfy other needs as well—the need for data related to employment, for practical information of all kinds, and for enrichment in the use of leisure.

Learning From Others

Then, on May 16-17, 2011, the Berkman Center together with Open Knowledge Commons and the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam convened a group of technical and legal experts from public and research libraries and government agencies in the U.S and Europe for a workshop focused on key questions regarding global interoperability in digital libraries. “The goal of this meeting was to learn from the experiences of existing projects such as Europeana in order to apply these lessons to the DPLA from the outset; much of the discussion focused on linked data in general and on linked library data in particular. Presentations examined interoperability of discovery, use, and deep research in existing global digital library infrastructure with a view toward ensuring that the DPLA adopts best practices in these areas.”

Notes from this meeting, along with the agenda and a list of participants, are available on the DPLA wiki:

Seeking Innovations

On May 20, the DPLA Steering Committee announced a Beta Sprint that aims to surface innovations that could play a part in the building of a digital public library. The Beta Sprint seeks ideas, models, prototypes, technical tools, user interfaces, etc.—put forth as a written statement, a visual display, code, or a combination of forms—that demonstrate how the DPLA might index and provide access to a wide range of broadly distributed content. The Beta Sprint also encourages development of submissions that suggest alternative designs or that focus on particular parts of the system, rather than on the DPLA as a whole.

In addition to gathering creative ideas from those submitting betas, the committee is seeking input from anyone wanting to submit their ideas for the DPLA. “We would love to hear from you. How do you want to use the DPLA? What would you like to see us build? Visit and let us know.”

However, at this point, this poll site presents a random survey with pairs of questions presented for voting—it doesn’t allow for voting on a single idea, though it does allow user-submitted ideas. This may change, according to the organizer.

There have already been more than 6 beta proposals, according to Palfrey. One collaborative proposal from some public libraries, academic libraries, and others has already been openly circulated by David Weinberger to the listserv for comments. It proposes two related, working software prototypes: ShelfLife, which provides users with a rich environment for exploring DPLA content, and LibraryCloud, the backend metadata server that supports ShelfLife. Both are open source projects and both will support linked open data.

Diverging Interests?

Palfry sees the DPLA initiative as taking a “big tent approach” so that many people can see themselves succeeding. “This is not a competitive project—it is meant to be complementary to other initiatives.” And, he notes, “We’re trying fairly relentlessly to keep our minds open.”

They asked for input and ideas, and, to that end, the listserv has proven to be a hotbed of discussion and debate. In particular, David H. Rothman, cofounder of, founder of TeleRead, and long-time advocate of a national digital library, has been an extremely active participant on the listserv. He argues vigorously against Palfry’s approach and instead advocates for a dual system that separates the diverging interests of academic and public libraries.

In an opinion piece in Library Journal, he wrote:

[T]he Digital Public Library of America and friends should push toward two tightly intertwined but separate entities—a Scholarly Digital Library of America (perhaps mostly privately funded, in line with the original vision out of Harvard) and a National Digital Library of America (mostly publicly funded, and with true public governance).

—A Point-Counterpoint on the Digital Public Library of America, with David Rothman, “Why We Need Two National Digital Library Systems,” and John Palfrey, “Come Now, Let Us Reason Together: A Clean Slate Project on the Future of Libraries.”

There followed a heated discussion on the listserv about “forking” the initiative, as Rothman suggested. Some questioned what the “P” in DPLA means. Others urged the importance of starting from common ground and acting from a unified position of strength. Some suggested the initiative should foster broader collaboration across library, museum, and other cultural heritage institutions.

Then, Palfrey wrote on June 6 to the listserv: “The SC has heard and acknowledges the broad discussion on the listserv about dropping the P. SC members are asked to think about their views on this matter and to test variants/new ideas and bring feedback to the June in-person SC meeting.”

The Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) have called upon the Steering Committee of the DPLA “to reconsider the name of the project and adopt a name that would not have the unintended consequence of undermining support for public libraries in the U.S.”

All of these are welcome steps forward in the conversation. To keep up with the discussion, subscribe to the list at

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.

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By PAULA HANE6/20/2011 3:35:27 PM

Update on the Beta Sprint posted June 20, 2011:

We had over 60 statements of interest in the DPLA Beta Sprint by Wednesday's deadline. We are thrilled with the variety and creativity of the proposals and are looking forward to the betas. In the meantime, we've posted a list of the sprinters on the wiki: We've asked participants to add short descriptions of their projects; we hope that some of them will reach out to the community for feedback as they develop their betas.

We've also created a page where sprinters can list specific technical, design, or other needs they have in order to connect with community members who may be able to help meet these needs:

All of the Beta Sprint materials on the wiki are available at

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