Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Building the Digital Public Library of America

Feb. 28, 2013, 11:47 a.m., Posted by Annie Schutte

The Digital Public Library of America will launch on April 18 after two and a half years of careful planning and preparation. The project known as DPLA is the first national effort that seeks to aggregate existing records in state and regional digital libraries so that they are searchable from a single portal. Up until now, the documents that tell the story of our nation’s history and cultural heritage have largely been siloed in state and local libraries, museums, and archives. Some institutions have the ability to digitize those valuable materials and put them online, but strained budgets mean that most do not.

The project’s funding will also allow it to work with local communities to digitize their cultural-heritage—preserving them for the future and bringing them online as part of our first national digital library.

DPLA will bring together access to a diverse host of materials that were once stored on a patchwork of different websites, or not online at all, including newspapers, photographs, letters, newsreels, oral histories, manuscripts, books and public records. This could be a game changer for academic researchers and historians, who will be able to see more apparent connections between various local histories, perhaps for the first time. Students, teachers and amateur historians will be able to peruse DPLA’s rich exhibits and learn about their own history and genealogy. And local communities will see their history preserved rather than lost to the deterioration of time.

The first step toward what will become the Digital Public Library of America emerged from an October 2010 meeting at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The project has been able to develop quickly in part it will provide linkages to existing content, not build a new collection. Emily Gore, DPLA’s director of content, explains that it is "really building off of existing infrastructure to get this thing going."

Six state digital libraries and one regional library collective will act as The Digital Public Library of America service hubs, forming its core. These hubs already aggregate digital content from dozens, if not hundreds, of institutions within their areas—from large universities to small, local historical societies. They bring to the Digital Public Library of America not only their rich and diverse collections, but also their knowledge about how to execute large-scale, collaborative digital projects.

The seven service hubs are currently working on normalizing their metadata to share with the Digital Public Library of America. Post-launch, the hubs will expand by bringing new content and partners into the national library and planning community outreach to get as many local groups as possible aware of and involved in the project. 

The Digital Public Library of America will also launch in April with an impressive list of content hubs. While Harvard University is the only content hub officially announced so far,  Gore anticipates that the Digital Public Library of America will soon be able to confirm that the SmithsonianNational Archives and Records AdministrationNew York Public LibraryARTstor, and a few other large, academic libraries will have their materials ready in time for the April release.

DPLA leaders, including Gore and most of the service-hub directors, met in February at the Knight Foundation Libraries Conference, “From Building Collections to Making Connections,” to talk about the April launch and plan for challenges moving forward.

The group identified a number of issues they're grappling with, including:

  • Accommodating all of the differences in metadata between digital collections. Chris Vinson of the South Carolina Digital Library explains that, "there are so many different, unique infrastructures out there for digital libraries, and figuring out how to bring that all into one, monolithic place is going to be a real challenge."
  • Dealing with materials that are not in the public domain. The Digital Public Library of America may be founded on the idea of completely open access, but Sheila McAlister of the Digital Library of Georgia says that every service hub is "dealing with materials that are not in the public domain" and that it will have to figure out "how do we balance that and get people the kind of content that they want."
  • Deduplicating records after they’re aggregated: There will be duplicate metadata records from different repositories in the Digital Public Library of America in April, John Butler of the Minnesota Digital Library said, and the project will have to answer questions such as "How do we avoid letting that become a hit on a good user experience?" and "When we do de-duplicate—how do we choose an authentic and best copy to save?
  • Sanding out data unevenness: Not all metadata records are alike—some may include the full text of a newspaper article, while others include only a small caption for an image. Butler says that this will be a challenge as the project makes decisions about how those records are "treated by a search-engine algorithm so that discoverability across these objects is as good as it can be."
  • Increasing digitization speed. The Digital Public Library of America's post-launch goal is for the service hubs to significantly increase their outreach efforts and community partnerships, and Mary Molinaro of the Kentucky Digital Library says that means the service hubs "need to be able to manage that in a way where it's not bottlenecked, where we can digitize really fast … [and] get it up online really fast, as well."
  • Building a truly comprehensive digital library that provides a complete picture of America's cultural history. Central to its mission is the idea that it will truly be America's digital library, which Gore believes means "making sure that we are broadly represented, every community has a stake in this … making sure that we have all kinds of content that meets the needs of all the communities who are interested in participating in this platform."
  • Explaining it to the public: McAlister worries that while "in the library community, there's a lot of talk about DPLA … [it hasn't] crossed into the general public as much." The question of what the public will do with DPLA is a big one, and Sandra McIntyre of the Mountain West Digital Library says that it will have to work to convey: "What does it mean? What does each word in Digital Public Library of America mean?
  • Sustaining the project into the future. DPLA is currently funded through grants from Knight Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, but it will ultimately need to find a means for sustaining itself or gaining federal funding, but Gore knows that "we have to have success before that."

DPLA participants agree that the project is well positioned to expand and continue innovating after the April launch, despite these challenges, and that the possibilities for growth in local communities and across the nation are far higher than the hurdles.

McAlister said that the Digital Library of Georgia's affiliation will enable them to "work with institutions that are really strapped for resources to help them bring forward their own content and share it with a larger community." Molinaro echoed this sentiment, saying that the Kentucky Digital Library is looking forward to "reaching out to communities and to libraries that really have no way to get their content online. They have great content, but just don't have the ability to put it up, and nor would it be in a preservation repository."

Some of the service hubs are looking to engage their communities in creative, new ways. The Mountain West Digital Library, for example, is talking about starting a "mobile scan-van service" that McIntyre explains would allow people to "bring in their shoe boxes and informational materials to have them scanned … take a thumb-drive back home with them … but also share them with their local public library, their family history center, and with the Mountain West Digital Library, for sharing with DPLA audiences around the world."

Many service-hub directors said that they believe the project's most exciting prospect is in how the general public will hopefully take the content and come up with innovative uses for it. Molinaro says that, "once it is released, that's where it's going to be really exciting, to see what just regular people—programmers out there, librarians out there, teachers out there—will be able to do with this content." Butler agrees, saying "there could be different stories told because we have access to this large pot of data, and we can do whatever we want with it."

By Annie Schutte, a librarian, teacher and consultant for Knight Foundation

Note: We'll have in depth Q&As with several of the Digital Public Library of America's service-hub directors leading up to the April 18 launch. Stay tuned to @knightfdn and #libraries for updates.