December 10, 2023

What the DPLA Can Mean for Libraries



One of the concerns expressed about the planning initiative to create a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is that its very existence might threaten public libraries. While I credit this fear—no outcome to this initiative could be worse—the DPLA is designed to do precisely the opposite: to establish a platform and resources that will help libraries and other cultural heritage institutions, both public and private, to succeed in a digital era.

The DPLA, once built and at scale, can help libraries, archives, and museums in ways that we can foresee and in ways that we can’t, today. The DPLA can help bring materials to people through public, academic, and special libraries. The DPLA can also free up time for librarians to spend more time directly helping people. The DPLA can provide access to code and applications that will do extraordinary things for people through libraries. And the DPLA is already providing an open source platform on which others are developing exciting new applications that will help people in ways we can’t predict today—which is the true promise of a generative platform, much like the web itself.

Into the future, information will increasingly reside in the cloud, and library users will increasingly rely upon digital materials. In this future, the way we get there and use information can and should still be mediated, in part, by libraries. That means libraries must make a digital shift, charting a course that is different from our present direction. No one should fear (or act like) libraries are going away, but we need to continue to strive to change the services they provide and to build the case for them in a digital era. We can, through the DPLA, provide a lot of content and metadata that will allow libraries to do cool and deeply useful new things that will define the public and academic libraries of the coming decades.

Terry Plum of Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science recently defined the library as “a shared commons around information.” Terry went on: “You could look at the library as a community defined by the exchange of books, but it’s more. It is a community defined by the exchange of information to create knowledge.”

If Terry’s right, then the role of the library will continue to change from its monastic roots as a warehouse for physical materials (under lock and key) and toward vibrant community spaces that serve a variety of functions related to information. Many libraries, from the largest to the smallest, are already well into this shift. The DPLA is designed to be an important partner to libraries during this period of reinvention.

At the simplest level, the DPLA will provide access to materials that libraries will not have to purchase. These materials include tens of millions of library records (including more than 14 million catalog records from Harvard, for instance, freely licensed for use by libraries and others) as well as images, books, sound recordings, and more. These materials can be curated for local usage by libraries to serve specific communities. No one will need to ask permission; librarians can simply take what they like from this national resource and make use of it. Over time, if we are successful, free, digital resources will come from states and cities and towns all over the country, as well as from the largest cultural heritage institutions. These materials will be useful in ways we cannot anticipate today, for school children doing research projects to job seekers to the elderly to the most sophisticated of humanities scholars. Access to these materials is especially important, insofar as libraries continue to struggle to gain access to published works in copyright in a digital format. If there is, in fact, a savings for collections budgets from this process (which is not certain to be the case), money today spent on collections that are redundant can be redirected to unique materials and other services.

The DPLA is being designed not as an abstract proposition, but rather based on a series of use cases for how the world can be improved for library patrons, with libraries very much a part of the narrative in every sense. These use cases, published and updated online, have been created by the group of volunteers involved in the DPLA’s Audience and Participation work stream. The lead writers on these use cases are Nate Hill of the Chattanooga Public Library and Mike Barker of the Harvard University Library. These use cases are fictitious scenarios based upon the types of people that librarians find themselves serving in their everyday work. The idea is to anticipate ways that the world can be made better by developing a DPLA that is a partner to libraries.

For instance, librarians involved in the DPLA imagine serving Orion Velasquez, a 14-year old boy from New York. Orion is more interested in skateboarding with his friends than in his Native American tribe history project. He has a laptop, he knows how to use a computer independently, but is not enthusiastic (at first) about wading through online archives to find sources for his school project. The DPLA will provide materials that the public librarian in Orion’s neighborhood branch library (I think of the Forest Hills branch of the Queens Public Library, myself, as I think about this use case) to help him succeed in his project. The librarians there can help him to develop better search and discovery skills, as well as the digital literacy necessary to discern truth from fiction online. Librarians can help Orion to store information for himself for future retrieval, on this specific project or in general, for use later in life. Librarians can help him to share his knowledge with others online, through digital social environments or in real-space, perhaps through programming elsewhere in the city. The DPLA can’t and shouldn’t do all these things for libraries or for Orion, but it can be a platform that helps to support all these activities and make them possible for busy, often overworked, librarians at all levels.

Other DPLA use cases imagine job seekers who have few computer skills; students at community colleges that lack substantial research libraries at their schools; and researchers with Ph.Ds who want to crunch huge reams of data to help establish the future of academic disciplines. In each of these cases, the DPLA would serve as a key platform and service for librarians to support others, almost always through the mediation of local library interfaces.

Digital infrastructure, materials in digital form, and services that can be easily configured to meet the needs of public, school, and research communities are increasingly important for libraries of all types and levels to succeed. The consistently terrific researchers at the Pew Center just released their new findings about mobile connectivity to library websites. The mobile revolution has already hit libraries: 13 percent of Americans ages 16 and older have visited library websites or otherwise accessed library services by mobile device. That figure has doubled since the last national reading was taken. The DPLA can help to meet these library users where they are—wherever they are—both directly and through local library interfaces.

Libraries can and will help people access, create, and exchange information and knowledge through new activities, though, moving forward. These are all areas where the DPLA will supplement what libraries can do as they refine themselves as public institutions. In addition to providing direct access to materials, the DPLA can help libraries with:

  • Building tools to help people access data efficiently, help people use the technology better, and develop others’ abilities to access digital information;
  • Establishing maker spaces to allow people to use technology in ways they typically cannot from their home, such as through 3D and traditional printers, scanners, powerful software, access to data sets, and so forth (as envisioned through the YouMedia centers established through grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and other supporters around the country);
  • Building community around certain ideas and shared interests (people who like to code, people who are interested in local history, and so forth), allowing people to come together and exchange ideas, ask important questions, and find answers.

A core tenet of the DPLA planning initiative has been to partner, not to compete, with libraries. This partnership has taken multiple forms, both directly (through, say, the San Francisco Public Library or the Chicago Public Library, both of which have hosted DPLA events, or the Georgetown County Library in South Carolina, through the leadership of Dwight McInvaill, a DPLA steering committee member) and indirectly, through library associations. An important partner to the DPLA effort has been the American Library Association, especially under the presidency and leadership of Maureen Sullivan. LYRASIS has been a partnership through a grant sub-award and through the active involvement of its leadership in the planning effort. The Public Library Association welcomed DPLA speakers at their last annual conference, and its website has featured Nate Hill’s excellent blogging about DPLA planning work. The DPLA is designed as a complement to libraries and other cultural heritage institutions, whether public or private, local or national in scope.

The next time someone says we should cut a library budget because the Internet meets the information needs of communities, we all have to make clear how ridiculous that argument is. We need to increase the number of people making that case, not decrease it. The DPLA can be a part of the argument for increased support for libraries. By creating shared infrastructure and digital materials that everyone in the nation can use, we can make possible wonderful new services and activities that can take place in and through libraries, online and in real space. This positive vision of the future, combined with proof of the importance of these services for our economy and our democracy, will build support for libraries at all levels.

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. Thanks John. Great article. I just wanted to add my personal point of vue: I don’t want the DPLA to be a captive of information industry; as much as possible it should create and aggregate content on its own rather than simply farming out the task to the usual suspects. To some extent middlemen will be unavoidable, but the goal should be to self-reliance when it provides the most value. This is one reason why I’m so gung ho on a library takeover…