Magazine article Information Today

Digital Public Library of America

Magazine article Information Today

Digital Public Library of America

Article excerpt

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) lets us do "magnificent things," according to John Palfrey, chair of the DPLA Steering Committee and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

However, visions of magnificent things also have a tendency to generate fear, delight, and misinformation. Consider a case in point: A broad group of potential participants met at Harvard University in December 2010 to discuss the creation of the DPLA. By Oct. 21, 2011, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia fund announced that the two foundations had provided a total of $5 million to launch the DPLA Steering Committee to establish "the first concrete steps toward the realization of a large-scale digital public library that will make the cultural and scientific record available to all."

This timeline is quite ambitious, especially since the launch of the prototype is projected for April 2013, about 18 months after the initial announcement was made.

Working Out the Details

From the beginning, there have been a variety of issues to contend with, starting with the name itself. Apparently, every word in the title of Digital Public Library of America has caused some angst and confusion. Perhaps most troublesome is in the relationship of the DPLA to public libraries, implying that it would only serve these institutions. Instead, Palfrey describes this as a "clean slate project" where interested parties will envision what can be accomplished in developing a platform and infrastructure. The term "public" is broadly defined and potentially includes all types of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM).

Directors of many of these institutions are collaborating in the steering committee including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives and Records Administration. But non-GLAM institutions including the U.S. Copyright Office, Apple, and BioOne are among others collaborating in the steering committee, which will continue to expand over time.


I should note that the DPLA is not the first to have such a vision of a national digital library. The idea has been proposed before; other countries have actually acted on it. In 2005, six heads of state sent a letter to the European Commission that ultimately led to the formation of a European digital library. In 2008, Europeana was launched with the goal "of making Europe's cultural and scientific heritage accessible to the public."

Europeana, which is based at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, is funded by the European Commission, which unanimously voted to continue funding this year. In 2010, Europeana had amassed more than 10 million items in its collection. More than 180 heritage and knowledge organizations and IT experts across Europe support Europeana with a particular emphasis on technical and usability issues.

In a separate announcement that was also made on Oct. 21, DPLA reported that it will design its technical structure to promote interoperability with that of Europeana. Robert Darnton, a DPLA Steering Committee member and a Harvard University librarian, noted, "The association between the DPLA and Europeana means that users everywhere will eventually have access to the combined riches of the two systems at a single click. …

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