Library hounds, research heads and history buffs, Robert Darnton has been reading your diary.
Darnton, the university librarian at Harvard University, envisioned a digital library available free of charge to the public that would provide online access to the holdings of America's university libraries, museums, archives and historical societies. And on April 18, after more than two years of planning and preparation, the Digital Public Library of America launched — marking an information-age benchmark.
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The not-for-profit DPLA (dp.la) comes to fruition with an initial 2.4 million items, including text, audio, video and nearly 1 million images held by partnering institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard Library, the National Archives and Records Administration, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the New York Public Library, Mountain West Digital Library (comprising cultural heritage holdings in Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Hawaii institutions), Digital Commonwealth (Massachusetts) and the Minnesota Digital Library.
The holdings are searchable by subject, place and timeline.
Welcome to Library 2.0. "To me," director of content Emily Gore said, "the goal is to make the treasures of the nation's libraries, archives and museums available to a broader audience who may not be able to physically travel to all these wonderful places, especially these small museums or historical societies that are contributing through the service hub in their state."
Gore said most participating institutions have their own digital libraries and appreciate the exposure that DPLA offers them. Links on the DPLA site take visitors to websites of those institutions.
As the DPLA's holdings expand, it will become something of a one-stop reference resource "on a global scale," Gore said.
Consider a researcher aware that the Harvard University library has a daguerreotype of George Washington.
"If they log on to DPLA and they type 'George Washington,' they're going to find Harvard's daguerreotype," Gore said. "They will also find integrated content from all these other wonderful content holders such as the Smithsonian or small museums they would have never known existed, so it's even more of a rich resource."
The DPLA's content partners comprise two kinds of hubs. Service hubs serve as statewide aggregators of content, Gore said. These existing digital libraries, led generally by a flagship university in the state or region, have digitized historic materials such as books, photographs and manuscripts from various state institutions and made them available in one place online
Then there's a content hub. These are "large content holders," Gore said. Such institutions must have at least 250,000 objects to contribute, and the digital content must be online. Content hubs generally include large libraries, archives and museums in the U.S. Another such hub is ARTstor, which has contributed more than 10,000 images from the Dallas Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery.
What are some of these treasures? Among Gore's own enthusiastic discoveries, she said, were prints and sketches by Seth Eastman, an artist and military officer who taught drawing at West Point. While stationed in Minnesota in the early 1800s, he depicted the daily life and ceremonies of the Dakota and Ojibwa tribes.
"I had never seen them until we started building the site," Gore said. "They are amazing. When you see them, you realize what a jewel they are."
Beyond priceless historical images and video content such as a photo of the Smithsonian-housed desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a photo of Kentucky suffragettes marching for the right to vote at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, and footage of freedom riders from the Civil Rights era, Gore said that one of the most fascinating benefits of the DPLA will be its storehouse of photos that capture priceless images of life in the U.S. One of her favorites, on the site's home page, is an 1888 photograph by Massachusetts inventor Francis Blake of a young behatted boy in bowtie, jumping in front of a pond with a big smile on his face.
Also accessible on the DPLA site are exhibitions curated by institutions across the country. Some have more local appeal ("Boston Sports Temples"), but most take a broader perspective on U.S. history, including "Indomitable Spirits: Prohibition in the United States" from the Kentucky Digital Library, "Activism in the U.S." from the University of Georgia Libraries, and "This Land is Your Land: Parks and Public Spaces" from the South Carolina Digital Library.
"The Digital Public Library of America provides citizens with a window onto America's history and culture through its digital libraries," said John T. Butler, associate university librarian for data and technology at the University of Minnesota, one of DPLA's content partners, in an email.
The DPLA is "empowering" for state cultural heritage institutions, he wrote. "The DPLA is amassing an extraordinarily unique aggregation of content, one that cross-cuts knowledge, community and memory institutions perhaps like no other initiative to date. Already in DPLA we see the treasured images of the Blue Earth County Historical Society and the Minnesota Streetcar Museum stirred in the pot with collections from the Smithsonian and the National Archives."
The DPLA also provides a function that allows — in fact, encourages — developers, researchers and even casual users to create tools and apps from the content.
"The hope is that people will find the content and tools that DPLA provides as raw materials for digital storytelling," Butler said. "The generative potential enabled by DPLA's open access to this unique pool of data is unbounded. Might it be that DPLA will make its mark not only for the great collection it will become, but also what users will create from it?"
One app allows users to search simultaneously in DPLA and Europeana, a similar online storehouse of archival materials from European libraries, museums, archives and other institutions.
There would seem to be very little overlap between DPLA content and the typical local public library. In an interview with The Atlantic, executive director Dan Cohen noted that public libraries "are at the heart of their communities," and added that "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."
The DPLA is looking forward to exponential growth, Gore said. "We're getting ready to add the Getty as well as other state service hubs. By next year, we look to have 10 million items as part of the DPLA. We're just getting started."
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer.