May 19, 2024

Building a Digital Public Library of America

John Palfrey

John Palfrey



Above the front doors of the Boston Public Library (BPL) appear the words: “Free to all.” These three words face Copley Square and, beyond that, Trinity Church, the Massachusetts State House, and eventually Boston Harbor, our city’s historic gateway to the markets of the world.

The Boston Public Library, America’s first publicly funded municipal library, will host a celebration in April, 2013 to launch, officially, a project that is based upon these same three words. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is an ambitious, broad-based effort to establish a new library platform for our digitally-mediated age.

The planning for a DPLA began in October, 2010, when thirty people, representing a range of disciplines, met at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, MA, to talk about whether we might work together to establish a national digital library for our country. At the end of the meeting, everyone agreed to a single sentence: to work toward “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.”

Since that time, the DPLA planning effort has gained substantial momentum. It has brought together thousands of people from libraries, archives, museums, technology companies, private foundations, public agencies, and many other backgrounds, in an extended “design charette” to envision what we might build together.

What Is It?

The two-year planning initiative has been designed to answer a few big questions. First and most important: What is the “it” of the DPLA?  Put another way, what should we build and how will it help people?  The idea has garnered a lot of excitement from a broad range of people, but what problems will the DPLA solve when we have created it?

In its first iteration, the DPLA will bring together digital resources that are today distributed around the country and make them easily accessible and useful. Today, digital library materials are scattered in ways that no single librarian or patron could find them all. It would be prohibitively expensive for the DPLA to bring together materials from every single library, archive and museum in the country. Instead, the DPLA plans to connect existing state infrastructure to create a system of state (or in some cases, regional) service hubs, each offering standardized digital services to local institutions, including digitization and metadata services, and serving as an on-ramp for all by aggregating metadata and data from local institutions to feed into a new DPLA network. Over forty state digital libraries already exist, along with several regional digital libraries that span several states. Through the DPLA, states ought to be able to aggregate data from their local institutions; the DPLA, in turn, will aggregate data from states and regions, pooling it into a large discovery database that will be made freely available to libraries, archives and museums—and, directly, to individuals.

DPLA and Libraries

A second big question: how can this DPLA help libraries to succeed in their core mission to provide access to information and useful services to the public on a “free to all” basis? Early on, some skeptics questioned whether the DPLA would be friend or foe to public libraries. The design of the process, to engage public librarians as essential partners in the effort, has addressed this concern to large extent.  But the project must, in the end, prove that it can help rather than hinder the essential work that libraries perform on behalf of people in the United States and around the world.

An initial prototype system will make plain what the DPLA will offer, at least for starters, to anyone who seeks access to our country’s cultural and scientific heritage. The prototype will also demonstrate the ways in which the DPLA will provide code and tools—in addition to access to metadata and library materials—to help the libraries, archives, and museums that serve the public.

Coping with Copyright

Third: how can the DPLA provide access to knowledge in a digital era, given the restrictions of the copyright act and the related constraints of contract law and digital rights management technology?  The law is often seen as a constraint to the work of libraries today. In the digital era, many librarians feel that they cannot carry out their mission under the current legal regime. The DPLA as an institution will always respect copyright interests, but it also will take on the role of advocate for libraries in terms of making the most of what the law permits.

Dedicated volunteers, many of them top experts in their respective fields, have spent hundreds of hours in meetings talking about each of these questions, among others, and coming up with initial answers to inform the project’s launch. The answers to these big questions, and many others, will be addressed in part through the April, 2013 launch of the DPLA initiative. Each of these essential questions will also be the topic of a future column here in Library Journal in the months to come.

Getting Ready to Launch

Between today and April 2013, the DPLA team has much to accomplish. The work of the DPLA is coordinated by a small but dedicated team, called the DPLA Secretariat, at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Maura Marx leads the work as managing director, with Rebekah Heacock, Kenny Whitebloom, and many other Berkman staff and interns playing key support roles.  The secretariat team has coordinated the work of the six workstreams, highly distributed groups of volunteers that have planned the initiative and informed the decision-making of the DPLA’s Steering Committee.

Technology development, informed deeply by the last two years of deliberation, is at the center of activity at the DPLA today. A core team of technology developers is coding an open source back-end that will have open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable other technologists to develop on the emerging common platform. A team of front-end designers and developers, from iFactory, are building the DPLA’s primary interface. Other designers and developers are being encouraged to establish alternate front-end interfaces that will enable multiple routes into the DPLA.

The content team is equally active in preparation for the April launch. Led by Emily Gore, the DPLA’s first Director of Content and her colleague Amy Rudersdorf (who will also become the first official employees of the newly-established non-profit DPLA. Inc.), the content team is organizing a series of content and service hubs that will make materials available through the DPLA. Harvard University has recently pledged to contribute valuable materials from its special collections to the DPLA. The content team is also pulling together materials that have been, or will be, digitized in seven states or regions from around the country: Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, the Mountain West, Oregon, and South Carolina. The goal is to bring all states into this national framework, along with many leading public and private institutions as content sources. An early exhibition on immigration and migration, in partnership with Europeana, will demonstrate the connectivity between the DPLA and the national and regional digital libraries springing up around the world.

Finding the Funding

Fundraising for this ambitious initiative remains a top priority. The DPLA is fortunate to have many supporters in the philanthropic and government sectors. Both private foundations and public agencies have stepped in to pay for the work leading up to, and beyond, the upcoming launch. Private sources include the Sloan Foundation (which provided the initial planning grant, the first large grant award of $2.5 million, and another large award to DPLA’s partners at Berkeley’s Law School, led by Pam Samuelson), Arcadia Fund (which matched Sloan with another $2.5 million), the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, the Mellon Foundation (which supported CLIR and DLF in its work to help develop the DPLA),  and, most recently, the Knight Foundation (which has just provided $1 million to support the new service and content hubs in several of Knight’s core communities). Public agencies include the National Endowment for the Humanities (which has provided two grants, totaling more than $1 million) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (which has also supported the launch of the content and service hubs). Sloan’s vice president, Doron Weber, has played a crucial role in the steering committee as vice-chair and as a leader of fundraising efforts. The project will require many financial supporters to make this grand vision a reality: mass digitization on the scale that we envision will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish.

In the months to come, we will bring the first iteration of the DPLA into being. This first version will be just a glimpse of what could be—and, we hope, an inspiration to others to join us in this volunteer-driven endeavor. The project will turn into a formal non-profit, with a founding board and an executive director (for whom an active search, led by SpencerStuart, is on); the loosely-organized group of volunteers will evolve into a networked organization in the mode of the Wikimedia Foundation, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and the Mozilla Foundation. This project will never become a top-down, short-term-focused corporate entity, but rather a bottom-up, volunteer-powered movement to serve the public interest over the long term.

The DPLA’s launch at the BPL in April 2013, will be a starting point, not an end-point. If libraries are to be as vibrant, essential places in a digital era—able to make the cultural and scientific heritage of the world available, truly “free to all”—then we will have to work hard, together, across institutions and disciplines, to build new platforms and services for this new era.

John Palfrey About John Palfrey

John Palfrey, a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, is the president of DPLA’s board of directors and chair of its steering committee, as well as Head of School at Phillips Academy.


  1. Badreldin Elhag Musa says: