Now, With No Further Ado, We Present ... the Digital Public Library of America!

The Atlantic

View gallery

.
VKvakCozosLslujkqg0EEVg55T678nz_5I-BSrFnuN4.jpeg

Benjamin Sewall Blake jumping, ca. 1888. Francis Blake, photographer. (Massachusetts Historical Society)

Two-and-a-half years ago, at a meeting in Cambridge, leaders of 42 of America's top libraries and research institutions decided that the time had come to build something together. But what was that thing? After a half hour, Robert Darnton told The Atlantic last year, the group was able to agree on a single sentence: "It's a worthy effort, and we are willing to work together toward it." The "it" in question: a national, digital public library.

If that moment was the Digital Public Library of America's conception, then today is its birth, with the launch of DP.LA, the effort's online home. I asked executive director Dan Cohen about what the DPLA had become in those intervening 20 months, and how he saw its role in American public life going forward. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

What is the Digital Public Library of America? What do you hope it will become?

The idea behind the Digital Public Library of America is fairly simple actually -- it is the attempt, really a large-scale attempt, to knit together America's archives, libraries, and museums, which have a tremendous amount of content -- all forms of human expression, from images and photographs, to artwork, to published material and unpublished material, like archival and special collections. We want to bring that all together in one place.

One big part of the DPLA will be its brand-new website, DP.LA -- a nice, short URL. It works great on mobile phones too. It's a modern, responsive website.

But also, by bringing them together, I think we're also in a sense making those collections much more usable. When people come to the website, first of all, they'll be able to find a lot of content that exists out in smaller archives and collections much more easily. They won't have to go to hundreds or thousands of websites to find this amazing, unique scanned content from America's heritage and, indeed, from the world's -- because we have people from all over the world here, and archival content from all over the world. 

So there will be a real element of discovery -- both directed discovery and also coming across new things through serendipity, things you might not encounter otherwise.

View gallery

.
DPLA_Screens_Search.png

There will also be very innovative ways to search and scan across these collections. For the first time users will be able to actually browse an archive's collections using a map. We're using Open Street Map and people will be able to zoom into particular localities and see what any collection might have about that particular locality -- whether it's a big collection like the Smithsonian or the National Archives or a very small county historical society. 

View gallery

.
Thumbnail image for DPLA_Screens_Map.png

Beyond those really innovative discovery tools, there will also be two other elements to the DPLA that, I think, people may not get right away by going to the site. The second main thing, beyond the portal at DP.LA, is that we will have a platform that others can build upon. All the data will be licensed under CC0 -- that's really a public domain declaration. It means that we're giving away all this data for free for people to use in whatever way they want. And we will have an API -- a very powerful API -- that third-party developers will be able to use to create innovative apps based on the contents of the DPLA. So if you're a developer of a mobile app, maybe one for a local walking tour of a city, you can take the material you already have and mix it up with all the great content from the DPLA for that particular location.

And indeed as part of the process of ingesting this information about all of these items from all across the country, we are in the process of geocoding as much of them as possible, so that they'll work great in those kinds of GPS-based devices and apps. So, that platform is going to be a big part of it and we're hoping to see a lot of partners -- commercial and non-profit -- use that.

Then I think the third big piece is that the organization is really going to act as a very strong advocate for public options for reading and research in the 21st century. We really want to work to expand the realm of publicly available materials. So, obviously, a big part of that is working with non-profit groups like libraries, archives, and museums to get that stuff online and out to the public, but there will also be a component here where I'm going to push, along with my colleagues at the DPLA, to see how we can get other materials into the DPLA and out to the public. It very much has that spirit of the public library. We want to make the maximal amount of content available in a maximally open way.

I think that there will be initiatives that you see in the coming years to work on things like e-books, which are kind of a mess right now; it's really hard to even lend an e-book to your partner, compared with a physical book. We'll be looking at ways, for instance alternative licensing, to make content available as much as possible.

View gallery

.
DUPJno9tv9FpenNeQW-ai3c1AlUwuTgslhqvEICEW18,JpxtrBb_r95PyTmfO_YFo7p9NG155Q8u0nxu5wYwKRU.jpeg

Dakota quillwork leather vest (1890-1899), Minnesota Historical Society. Part of the Minnesota Digital Library's exhibition, "A History of Survivance: 19th c. Upper Midwest Native American Resources in the DPLA." (Minnesota Historical Society)

Can you give us examples of collections or items that are part of the DPLA that people can look forward to exploring?

Sure. We have a set of material that comes both from very large content hubs -- that includes really large collections like the Smithsonian, the National Archives, New York Public LIbrary, the University of Virginia, Harvard -- really big places, places that have millions of items and that have really incredible content. Smithsonian has 130+ million items. They've already donated, I think, about 800,000 items, and this is all kinds of things, from material culture to works of art and records and things like that. That will also be blended together with local content, which is brought in through things we are calling service hubs rather than content hubs. Service hubs -- and this is where people probably haven't heard as much about these organizations -- are actually about 42 state and regional digital libraries, things like the Digital Library of Georgia, Minnesota Digital Library, and Mountain West Digital Library, which covers Utah and parts of states right nearby. And those digital libraries, which I think are a little bit under the radar, are actually already doing an amazing job collecting digitized content from very small historic sites -- libraries, archives, and museums -- in their particular state or region.

The way we work is kind of in a networked fashion. A lot of this content, which is very unique and really has only been available at the local level, gets pulled up from those local sites into one of those 42 service hubs and then makes its way through those service hubs to the DPLA. We act as the top-level aggregator of all this great material, and the service hubs do an amazing job of normalizing the metadata and bringing in this content from thousands of sites across the United States.

View gallery

.
qD2dlkf71CYrUBrUhEoJJcn_IuygqW2X_6z9UyAg0M4.jpeg

Harvey Gantt being interviewed upon entering Clemson College as the first African American student in 1963. (Clemson University Photographs/Clemson University Libraries Special Collections)

So we've already announced partnerships with a half-dozen of these service hubs, and we're hoping to raise additional funds to partner with the remaining ones as we go forward. And so the kinds of things that you'd see in there ... We have everything from daguerrotypes of Abraham Lincoln; we have images of women marching for the vote in Kentucky, from the Kentucky Digital Library; we have a lot of really amazing Civil Rights Movement content, from the Digital Library of Georgia and elsewhere; we have the book Notes on the State of Virginia written by Thomas Jefferson; we have paintings by Winslow Homer. It's really a full array of things.

View gallery

.
3zHKMWFNHE0iC-o2Eu7lb_WCKWrXy4k7A573bLyQeAE.jpeg

Laura Clay and group marching for the Madison, Fayette, and Franklin Kentucky Equal Rights Association, at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis (undated). (Laura Clay Photographic Collection/University of Kentucky Special Collections Library)

One thing that was just brought to my attention recently -- and this is really remarkable -- is this 1919 home movie of an African-American backyard ball game, which came in through the Georgia Digital Library.

View gallery

.
UtBIC8pmgaw0DdiOzdGswVc4QVnT3SL4zeNtpWIqeIk.jpeg

Still from a home movie of a baseball game between African American employees of the Pebble Hill Plantation and another neighboring plantation, Thomas County, Georgia, 1919?. (Pebble Hill Plantation Film Collection/Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection/ University of Georgia Libraries)

So it's that kind of stuff that, really, generally doesn't see the light of day, that visitors to DP.LA will be able to see for the first time.

I think everybody has an understanding about the role a public library plays in their town and in their own lives. Can you talk about how the Digital Public Library of America fits in with the role of libraries going forward in the 21st century?

We really want to be strong partners of public libraries and research libraries as wel. We see ourselves as playing a very complimentary role, first of all, in terms of the kind of content you'll see at DP.LA. It really is just an extension -- with very little overlap -- with what your local public library will have. About 80 percent of the books that circulate in a local public library are very recent -- best sellers and genre fiction. I don't see, anytime soon, the DPLA having that kind of material, although we'd like to have -- and expect to have -- millions of items from older books in our collection. And also, your local library doesn't have thousands of works of art and archival materials and things like that. So in that way we don't have overlapping content.

I also think that we're going to provide some really unique services that will help supplement what's going on in public and research libraries. For instance, that map interface is a way to browse the collections. That's not generally an interface that you see on your local public library's website. I live in Vienna, Virginia, and we have a great public library that I'm an avid user of and my kids are avid users of. If that local library were to scan in content from Vienna, they could upload that into DPLA and get all the great value of having an API and map-based browsing -- things that they are unlikely to build on their own, since most libraries are not running that kind of technical infrastructure. So I think that we provide a great technical layer for these collections.

Beyond that, I think that we also want to try to work with other libraries, archives, and museums to do some coordinated action on things like access to new materials. I hope that the DPLA can act, in some senses, as a market maker. I hope we can bring a huge audience to content, and when that happens, you might have, for instances, authors or publishers becoming very interested in how they might be able to put materials into DPLA to attract new readers and researchers.

So I think that there are a lot of elements of complementarity. We're not a physical library. There's still a lot that physical libraries do extremely well. They provide spaces for study; they provide meeting spaces, spaces for public readers; they also provide access to physical content that is better in physical form. I still, for example, love children's books in their physical format versus a digital format on my laptop. And also they provide Internet access for millions of Americans still. Public libraries are at the heart of their communities. They serve an important role. If you actually look at foot traffic into public libraries, it is not going down. These are still very vibrant places. There is no way that we can replace that, that physical presence that public libraries have. But we want to work with them to see how we can expand their mission of providing open access to materials, which has always been a really strong component of American citizenry.





More From The Atlantic

Rates

View Comments (0)

Recommended for You

  • Tycoon buys 30 Rolls-Royces for Macau hotel

    A Hong Kong tycoon has placed the biggest ever order for Rolls-Royce cars, agreeing to buy 30 Phantoms to chauffeur guests at a luxury resort he's building in the global gambling capital of Macau. Stephen Hung's $20 million purchase surpasses the 14 Phantoms bought by Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel in…

    Associated Press
  • The New 2015 Sonata®: A Step Above the Competition

    There's a Sonata® that's perfect for you, and this is your chance to build it! Visit the Hyundai® Official Site to customize your 2015 Sonata® today!

    AdChoicesHyundaiSponsored
  • Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks

    Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks While investors gear up for Alibaba Group 's (BABA) hotly anticipated initial public offering, don't forget about other Chinese stocks that are worth keeping an eye on. Today's Young Guns Screen of

    Investor's Business Daily
  • "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savings

    "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savingsBy the time she hit her late 40s, Toni Eugenia wasn’t sure she would ever be able to retire. Eugenia, 56, a pharmacy technician who lived in Houston, was nearly $200,000 in debt and

    Yahoo Finance
  • Fed comments tell Cramer to buy Apple & more

    Jim Cramer spent Wednesday afternoon sifting through the Fed statement and the comments made by Fed Chief Janet Yellen in the subsequent press conference. "The trick with the Yellen regime, like the trick with the Ben Bernanke regime before her is to remember that they speak for the common person,"…

    CNBC
  • Play

    Citi, Bank of America Offer Discounted Mortgages

    Citigroup and Bank of America will offer mortgages at discounted interest rates to help borrowers with low incomes or subprime credit. AnnaMaria Andriotis joins MoneyBeat. Photo: Getty.

    WSJ Live
  • Apple to unveil new iPads, operating system on Oct. 21 : report

    The company plans to unveil the sixth generation of its iPad and the third edition of the iPad mini, as well as its operating system OS X Yosemite, which has undergone a complete visual overhaul, the Internet news website said. Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment. The iPad is…

    Reuters
  • Margaritaville casino owners seek bankruptcy

    The owner of Biloxi's Margaritaville casino has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, only hours before a hearing where the landlord aimed to seize the property. The filing by MVB Holding LLC in U.S. Don Dornan, a lawyer for landlord Clay Point LLC, said the company had planned to ask…

    Associated Press
  • Hyundai Elantra: Features & Benefits Come Standard

    More interior space, alloy wheels standard, 145 HP. Explore all the features and benefits of the Elantra at the Hyundai Official Site.

    AdChoicesHyundai®Sponsored
  • Embraer to sell 50 E-175 jets to Republic in $2.1 billion deal

    Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's third largest commercial planemaker, said on Wednesday it booked a firm order from U.S. The deal, which will be included in Embraer's order book for the third quarter, is valued at $2.1 billion, the planemaker said in a securities filing. The planes will be operated…

    Reuters
  • Here's What Mark Cuban Wishes He Knew About Money In His 20s

    Cuban is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban is generous with his advice. When we asked him what he wishes he'd known about money in his 20s, he said:

    Business Insider
  • SHOE COMPANY: Our CEO Just Disappeared And Most Of The Money Is Gone

    "and like that: he's gone." This is an actual headline from a company press release: "CEO and COO disappeared, most of the company's cash missing." (Via FastFT) In a statement, German-based shoe company Ultrasonic said its CFO,  Chi Kwong Clifford Chan, has been unable to reach the company's CEO,…

    Business Insider
  • Gold loses luster on Fed; Barclays cuts forecast

    Barclays cuts gold forecasts, sees increasingly bearish backdrop Bloomberg MA MB MC MD ME SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Gold prices dipped Wednesday on concerns about a stronger dollar ahead of the Federal Reserve policy statement and in response to Barclays lowering its gold forecast.

    MarketWatch
  • Billionaire Investor Says Chinese People Work Harder And Western Companies Could Face Deep Trouble After Alibaba IPO

    Michael Moritz, the chairman of VC firm Sequoia Capital, is a huge fan of Chinese internet companies and reiterated his enthusiasm for the Chinese market in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. The billionaire investor described the Alibaba IPO as a “major landmark event” that is as…

    Business Insider
  • Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More

    Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More Stocks were firm on Wednesday morning ahead of the FOMC meeting outcome. Tuesday’s rally may have sparked higher interest again, and investors are looking for bargains

    24/7 Wall St.
  • $40-Off Limited Time Offer From Norton

    Award-winning PC protection that doesn't slow you down. Easy installation & money-back guarantee. Download today with our $40-off limited time offer.

    AdChoicesNorton by SymantecSponsored
  • Fed renews zero rate pledge, but hints at steeper rate hike path

    The Federal Reserve on Wednesday renewed its pledge to keep interest rates near zero for a "considerable time," but also indicated it could raise borrowing costs faster than expected when it starts moving. In a statement after a two-day meeting of its policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee,…

    Reuters
  • Boeing may have outfoxed Musk, but it could have bigger problems

    Elon Musk is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of the 21st Century, but he was outsized an old school aerospace giant. Boeing won the bulk of NASA’s contract for a space taxi.  One of the other companies vying for the deal is SpaceX, the company headed by Tesla’s Musk, will get a…

    Talking Numbers
  • Romney-Sized IRAs Scrutinized as Government Studies Taxes

    The preliminary report attaches data to an issue that drew attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney reported an IRA worth $20 million to $102 million. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said many of these "massive" accounts come from deals…

    Bloomberg
  • 6 Things Debt Collectors Wish You Knew

    The work debt collectors do is not popular, and has become increasingly derided by those who don’t like what we do or simply don’t know the facts about debt collection. Too often, debt collection is painted with a broad brush to create a portrait that isn’t accurate, and doesn’t properly educate…

    Credit.com
  • Play

    What the Fed Meeting Means for Bonds

    Janet Yellen & Co. are expected to hint at their timetable for raising interest rates. Here's how investors should prepare ahead of the meeting.

    WSJ Live
  • The Government Keeps Helping People Buy Failing Cold Stone Creamerys

    Would you loan someone money to buy a Cold Stone Creamery franchise if you knew that more than a quarter of those loans default? Over the last decade, franchisees in the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream chain defaulted on 29 percent of working-capital loans backed by the government, costing taxpayers…

    BusinessWeek
  • 5 Questions That Will Not Get You Hired

    The wrong questions can tank even the best interview. Here are five questions you should never ask in a job interview.

    AdChoicesMonster.comSponsored
  • Russian billionaire placed under house arrest

    A billionaire Russian tycoon was placed under house arrest Tuesday in a money-laundering case that has drawn comparisons with a government crackdown on Russia's Yukos oil company more than a decade ago. The Investigative Committee, Russia's top investigative agency, said that Vladimir Yevtushenkov,…

    Associated Press