August 15, 2022

What is the DPLA?

See also:
Q&A: Dan Cohen on His Role as the Founding Executive Director of DPLA

The question that has most frequently come up in the course of the two-year planning process for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) has been a very simple one: What is it?

The DPLA planning process began, back in October 2010, with agreement on a broad vision statement. At a meeting in Cambridge, MA, 40 leaders from libraries, foundations, academia, and technology projects agreed to work together to create “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 current and future ­generations.”

ljx130402webPalfrey1 What is the DPLA?

BRANDING TOWARD LAUNCH (clockwise from top): Temporary tattoos on participants’ hands at DPLA Midwest say “we mean business” when it comes to governance and authoring a road map to success; the official DPLA launch on April 18 is the culmination of dozens of events and many years of work from a wide range of stakeholders; a few of many photo booth support shots, spreading the word online about the launch event. Photos by Joey Mornin

So far, so good. A diverse and prominent group managed to concur on a single sentence. The challenge since that time has been to make the vision more precise, to fill in the picture, and, in doing so, to expand the group of people who are excited about working toward this shared goal.

Since April 2010, the planning initiative has taken the form of an extended, national design phase to plan out what we should build together. The emphasis of this process has been to solicit diverse views as to what the “it” should be that we are working toward.

We have engaged more than 1,000 people, online and in person at dozens of meetings, on both coasts of the United States and many places in between. The process has been extensive on purpose; the idea has been to ensure that we are building toward a truly national resource and one that will serve as many people and libraries as we reasonably can. The design process and the decisions made along the way have been carefully documented online, on the project’s website, wiki, and multiple email lists. Participants have come from public libraries, academic libraries, publishing houses, technology companies, government agencies, funding institutions, and many other places and backgrounds.

On April 18, we will launch the first beta version of the DPLA. In its first iteration, the DPLA will combine a group of rich, interesting digital collections, from state and regional digital archives to the special collections of major university libraries and federal holdings. The DPLA will demonstrate how powerful and exciting it can be to bring together our nation’s digitized materials, metadata (including catalog records, for instance), code, and digital tools and services into an open, shared resource. Imagine the ability to access a vastly larger set of materials than ever before, both through a single web portal and through your local library, which has carefully curated a subset of the national database.

Distributed effort

The DPLA will operate on a network model, much like the Internet itself. The platform will serve as the central nexus for a group of “hubs.” These hubs are nationwide organizations that provide essential services and content for the DPLA. Presenting a geographically and historically diverse look at our nation’s archives, the seven initial service hubs span the United States: the Mountain West Digital Library (Utah, Nevada, and Arizona), Digital Commonwealth (Massachusetts), Digital Library of Georgia, Kentucky Digital Library, Minnesota Digital Library, South Carolina Digital Library, and Oregon Digital Library. Each of these organizations assists an even greater number of local and regional libraries, museums, and archives with digitization efforts, creating a broad network of contributors and a vast range of content that users can access.

Each of the DPLA’s service hubs contains unique, valuable materials. The Minnesota Digital Library, for instance, hosts resources from more than 150 cultural institutions statewide on its Minnesota Reflections site. Contributors to the collection range from the Minnesota Streetcar Museum to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul. The collection, now ten years old, today includes maps, images, and documents pertinent to local historical research and to a comprehensive exploration of the state’s history and geography. The Mountain West Digital Library, meanwhile, contains the Western Soundscape Archive, a collection of nearly 3,000 sounds clips pertaining to the landscape and natural environment of the Mountain West region from the University of Utah’s content. Ever wonder what a Wyoming toad sounds like?

In addition to the service hubs, the DPLA will bring together content from major institutional digital collections, such as the special collections of Harvard University and the collections of the National Archives, which have both announced that they would become the DPLA’s first content hubs—to be followed, we hope, by many others in both the private and the public sector.

The structure of these hubs offers a preview of what the DPLA will accomplish on a national level. Each of the service hubs collects content from its region, assisting the libraries and archives responsible for that content in the process. The DPLA will help to aggregate the metadata and the materials and in turn connect users to the content across these many regional and institutional digital libraries. In much the same way that you might find a book not available at your local library through an interlibrary loan system, the DPLA will link digital collections from across the United States to make a wide variety of content directly available to users.

Making connections

Reaching the DPLA’s content will, of course, require access to a computer connected to the Internet, as well as skill in navigating the digital world. In order to fulfill its promise, the DPLA will partner with local institutions in a wide range of ways. People worldwide will be able to come to directly to access materials from this online platform. But we expect that, far more often, people will access DPLA-related materials through their local cultural heritage institution—through a local public library, for instance, or through a historical society, archive, museum, or college library. DPLA materials will be available for bulk download and universal access, to the greatest extent possible. The DPLA will also make available its code and services for free, on an open source basis. Through its network of service hubs, it will help to support the digitization of records, addition of metadata, and long-term preservation.

The design of the DPLA is driven by a series of use cases that document how the world will be different (and better) for various imaginary people if we can build this platform. These use cases were developed by members of the Audience and Participation workstream of the DPLA over the past two years to guide the technical development and content acquisition. One case considers Joanie Utter, a (fictitious) 73-year-old retiree from Deadwood, SD. Joanie hopes to digitize a series of historically significant photographs in a trunk in her basement. Joanie drives to her local historical society, where an employee helps her digitize her entire collection and then uses an app he found through the DPLA in order to curate the collection online.

Although Joanie had no previous experience using a computer, she is able to contribute to the expansion of knowledge online about her town’s history. Continuing scanning initiatives by regional organizations like the DPLA’s service hubs, meanwhile, can help provide the physical equipment for smaller, local institutions like Joanie’s historical society to digitize their own histories. The DPLA will serve as an on-ramp, allowing local and regional organizations to move into the digital realm, and to help DPLA users build essential digital skills. We anticipate commissioning mobile scanning units in the future that might drive across the country—“Scannebagos,” or Winnebagos with scanners in the back, staffed by helpful librarians and archivists (or perhaps Airstreams, if the Winnebago company doesn’t wish to partner with us; hat tip to DPLA director of content Emily Gore for the name)—to help get our cultural history digitized and made available.

The DPLA will also seek creative ways to highlight content from digital collections throughout the country and internationally. The DPLA is building an exhibition in collaboration with Europeana, the pan-Europe digital library, that showcases resources from some of the DPLA’s content providers. The exhibition, Leaving Europe: A New Life in America, explores the motivations and journey of European immigrants to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries and includes images and documents from the (U.S.) National Archives and Records Administration, Harvard University, New York Public Library, and University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center. By combining photographs and other documents from both sides of the Atlantic to create an exhibition, the DPLA and Europeana sought to provide a multifaceted understanding of immigration to the United States, while highlighting the sorts of original documents that users can access through their digital collections. The exhibition employed documents from America’s rich cultural history to highlight the sort of content and educational potential we will find in exploring our nation’s digital cultural resources.

Copyright priority

So far, the DPLA has tackled only materials in the public domain. These books, images, sound files, videos, and other digital artifacts are not encumbered by copyright restrictions. The DPLA process has also focused primarily on pulling together the metadata, not the content itself. As the DPLA expands, we will continue to support digitization and may establish a central repository, but for the time being, the strategy is to rely on the distributed network of partners to host and preserve the materials. The DPLA is focused on making these materials accessible and providing a useful platform for libraries and their patrons to make great use of them.

Will the DPLA make accessible books and other materials that are still in copyright? The answer is maybe but not at first—at least, not as a first priority. The initial priority is to establish the platform to support libraries and to make it easier to share and make available the amazing resources that are being digitized at the local, state, and regional level; in our great libraries, archives, and museums; and at our most forward-looking federal and state agencies. 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. While such access will not be part of the April launch of Phase 1, it is a high-priority issue; its importance is not lost on the community of people seeking to get the DPLA off the ground. (In a recent essay for LJ, I took up the legal issues related to the DPLA more explicitly)

Bottom line

There are two key points about what the DPLA “is,” at least as of April 2013. First, the DPLA will be what we, the people, decide to make of it, as a shared, public-spirited resource. Second, the DPLA is the community of people who have devoted themselves (ourselves, in fact) to pursuing an ambitious, public-spirited vision of what the future might hold. On day one, we will present a radically open platform that will make a lot of exciting material available more broadly, as well as a lot of code and services with which technologists can do interesting things. On day one, the DPLA will have an extraordinary founding executive director in place, Dan Cohen [see also a recent Q&A with Cohen just after his appointment—Ed.], and a diverse, dedicated group of volunteers who have contributed their time, energy, and attention to the topic of creating a digital public library for the United States. Over time, the DPLA will grow into an essential partner to libraries, archives, and museums, as well as those who rely upon them. The form that the DPLA will take in five, ten, 20 years? That’s up to all of us. And the best is yet to come.

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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.