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Concrete Steps Toward a Digital Public Library of America
Posted On November 1, 2012
The dream of a national digital public library is inching closer to reality. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) initiative was launched in December 2010 with generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Since then it has been working to transition from a planning initiative to a fully independent 501(c)(3) organization and has crafted a draft job outline for DPLA Executive Director.

The DPLA plans to make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all via a large-scale digital library. It will be “an open, distributed network of comprehensive resources that will draw upon the nation’s resources and heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, enlighten, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” 

DPLA Midwest—which took place on Oct. 11-12, 2012, in Chicago—was the third major public event that assembled a wide range of stakeholders. At that event, the DPLA announced it will launch its Digital Hubs Pilot Project in seven states with $1 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The seven pilot sites will provide direct services at the regional and local level, digitizing thousands of items at each hub location, sending trainers to teach staff how to categorize the digitized materials and providing virtual storage space.

Service hubs initially identified for the pilot are the following:

  • Mountain West Digital Library (Utah, Nevada, and Arizona)
  • Digital Commonwealth (Massachusetts)
  • Digital Library of Georgia
  • Kentucky Digital Library
  • Minnesota Digital Library
  • Oregon Digital Library
  • South Carolina Digital Library

“Libraries and archives contain vast repositories of their community’s everyday history, a rich past with local and national resonance. Digitizing, categorizing, and sharing these cultural assets electronically helps libraries in their evolution from information storehouses into dynamic hubs using history to create content and engage the community,” says George Martinez, director of information technology at Knight Foundation.

The funding is part of Knight Foundation’s Library Initiative, which helps libraries achieve their mission of being “places for personal fulfillment, content creation, and community engagement.”

DPLA is scheduled to launch a prototype in April 2013 that will make hundreds of thousands of digital items freely available to the public. According to a report on the Midwest event in ACRL TechConnect by Margaret Heller, the launch will feature exhibits showcasing some of the service hubs’ content—topics include civil rights, prohibition, Native Americans, and a joint presentation with Europeana about immigration. The service hubs will reportedly offer a full menu of standardized digital services to local institutions, including digitization, metadata consultation, data aggregation, storage services, community outreach, and exhibit building.

DPLA is partnering with Boston, MA-based interactive agency iFactory to design and develop the prototype front end portal. iFactory will create a website that will facilitate the creative discovery, sharing, and use of multimedia library materials among the general public. This prototype website, built on top of the DPLA API currently under development, will serve as a gesture toward the possibilities for a future, fully built-out DPLA.

iFactory has done web development work for some of the leading organizations in the publishing world, including Oxford University Press, De Gruyter, SAGE, Cengage, and many others.

At DPLA Midwest, the DPLA Steering Committee also announced the appointment of five members to the inaugural DPLA Board of Directors. The inaugural DPLA Board is composed of public and research librarians, technologists, intellectual property scholars, and business experts from around the country—it’s an impressive group (as are the members of the Steering Committee, which has been working on the initiative).

  • Cathy Casserly, CEO of Creative Commons
  • Paul Courant, Harold T. Shapiro Professor of Public Policy and Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan; DPLA Steering Committee
  • Laura DeBonis, Former Director of Library Partnerships for Google Book Search
  • Luis Herrera, City Librarian for the City and County of San Francisco; DPLA Steering Committee
  • John Palfrey, Head of School, Phillips Academy, Andover; DPLA Steering Committee

“I am delighted and honored to join the Board of Directors of the Digital Public Library of America,” says Casserly. “Just as libraries are the cornerstone of the educational and cultural life of a community, a digital library that’s open and accessible to everyone is crucial to the future of the Internet.”

DPLA is holding its first Appfest, an informal, open call for both ideas and functional examples of creative and engaging ways to use the content and metadata in the DPLA back-end platform. The first Appfest will take place on Nov. 8-9, 2012, at the Chattanooga Public Library. Here’s what DPLA is looking for.

We’re looking for web and mobile apps, data visualization hacks, dashboard widgets that might spice up an end-user’s homepage, or a medley of all of these. There are no strict boundaries on the types of submissions accepted, except that they be open source (the DPLA platform is released under a AGPLv3 license) and interoperable with the DPLA platform. Participants are asked to pitch ideas for apps on the DPLA Appfest wiki page before the event, as pitches made on the wiki will inform what is made on Friday, Nov. 9.

David Rothman, a passionate proponent of national digital libraries who has “criticized the organization on matters ranging from openness to diversity and responsiveness to major national needs” and continues to advocate for “two national digital library systems in time, one public and one academic,” says the progress DPLA has made is heartening. He notes, “Skeptics notwithstanding, however, the Harvard-hosted group is actually picking up steam, making it worthier of attention from the library world, the media, philanthropists, and politicians controlling budgets at all levels of government.”

Rothman notes that the DPLA “has received millions in funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and other private sources, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other benefactors and forged an alliance with a European digital library initiative, in addition to involving the HathiTrust and the Internet Archive.” However, he comments, “If any national digital library initiative in the U.S. stands a chance of making it, the DPLA does. But this is still early in the game. The real tell will come when the new DPLA nonprofit approaches funders for the long term. I hope they oblige.”

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 George Curran11/1/2012 2:02:45 PM

It is interesting to note that DPLA was founded 54 years after the concept of an overarching electronic compendium of a civilization's knowledge was first broached in the movie "Forbidden Planet" (1956). Even the mode of viewing of that knowledge-base, on an display that occupied an entire desktop, was far beyond anything else conceived of or possible until recently. Of course, whether we humans will use that knowledge anymore intelligently or with greater wisdom than the Krell remains to be seen!

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