The Digital Public Library of America: What Does a New Platform Mean for Academic Research?

Robert Darnton asked in the New York Review of Books blog nearly two years ago: “Can we create a National Digital Library?” 1 Anyone who recalls reference homework exercises checking bibliographic information for United States imprints versus British or French will certainly remember the United States does not have a national library in the sense of a library that collects all the works of that country and creates a national bibliography 2 Certain libraries, such as the Library of Congress, have certain prerogatives for collection and dissemination of standards 3, but there is no one library that creates a national bibliography. Such it was for print, and so it remains even more so for digital. So when Darnton asks that–as he goes on to illuminate further in his article–he is asking a much larger question about  libraries in the United States. European and Asian countries have created national digital libraries as part of or in addition to their national print libraries.  The question is: if others can do it, why can’t we? Furthermore, why can’t we join those libraries with our national digital library? The DPLA has  announced collaboration with Europeana, which has already had notable successes with digitizing content and making it and its metadata freely available. This indicates that we could potentially create a useful worldwide digital library, or at least a North American/European one.The dream of Paul Otlet’s universal bibliography seems once again to be just out of reach.

In this post, I want to examine what the Digital Public Library of America claims to do, and what approaches it is taking. It is still new enough and there are still enough unanswered questions to give any sort of final answer to whether this will actually be the national digital library. Nonetheless, there seems to be enough traction and, perhaps more importantly, funding that we should pay close attention to what is delivered in April 2013.

Can we reach a common vision about the nature of the DPLA?

The planning for the DPLA started in the  fall of 2010 when Harvard’s Berkman Center received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to begin planning the project in earnest. The initial idea was to digitize all the materials which it was legal to digitize, and create a platform that would be accessible to all people in the US (or nationally). Google had already proved that it was possible, so it seemed that with many libraries working together it would be concievable to repeat their sucesses, but with solely non-commerical motives  4.

The initials stages of planning brought out many different ideas and perspectives about the philosophical and practical components of the DPLA, many of which are still unanswered. The theme of debate that has emerged are whether the DPLA would be a true “public” library, and what in fact ought to be in such a library. David Rothman argues that the DPLA as described by Darnton would be a wonderful tool for making humanities research easy and viable for more people, but would not solve the problems of making popular e-books  accessible through libraries or getting students up-to-date textbooks. The latter two aims are much more challenging than getting access to public domain or academic materials because a lot more money is at stake 5.

One of the projects for the Audience and Content workstream is to figure out how average Americans might actually use a digital public library of America. One of the potential use cases is a student who can just use DPLA to write a whole paper on the Iriquois Nations. Teachers and librarians posted some questions about this in the comments, including questioning whether it is appropriate to tell students to use one portal for all research. We generally counsel students to check multiple sources–and getting students used to searching one place that happens to be appropriate for searching one topic may not work if the DPLA has nothing available on say, the latest computer technology.

Digital content and the DPLA

What content the DPLA will provide will surely become more clear over the following months. They have appointed Emily Gore as Director of Content, and continue to hold further working groups on content and audience. The DPLA website promises a remarkable vision for content:

The DPLA will incorporate all media types and formats including the written record—books, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts, and digital texts—and expanding into visual and audiovisual materials in concert with existing repositories. In order to lay a solid foundation for its collections, the DPLA will begin with works in the public domain that have already been digitized and are accessible through other initiatives. Further material will be added incrementally to this basic foundation, starting with orphan works and materials that are in copyright but out-of-print. The DPLA will also explore models for digital lending of in-copyright materials. The content that is contributed to or funded by the DPLA will be made available, including through bulk download, with no new restrictions, via a service available to libraries, museums, and archives in the United States, with use and reuse governed only by public law.  6

All of these models exist in one way or another already, however, so how is this something new?

The major purveyors of out of copyright digital book content are Google Books and HathiTrust. The potential problems with Google Books are obvious just in the name–Google is a publicly traded company with aspirations to be the hub of all world information. Privacy and availability, not to mention legality, are a few of the concerns. HathiTrust is a collective of research universities digitizing collections, many in concert with Google Books, but the full text of these books in a convenient format is generally only available to members of HathiTrust. HathiTrust faced a lawsuit from the Authors Guild about its digitization of orphan works, which is an issue the DPLA is also planning to address.

Other projects exist trying to make currently in copyright digital books more accessible, of which is probably best known. This requires a critical mass of people to actively work to pay to release a book into the public domain, and so may not serve the scholar with a unique research project. Some future plans for the DPLA include to obtain funds to pay authors for use–but this may or may not include releasing books into the public domain.

DPLA is not meant to include books alone. Planning so far suggests that books make a logical jumping off point. The “Concept Note” points out that “if it takes the sky as its limit, it will never get off the ground.” Despite this caution, ideally it would eventually be a portal to all types of materials already made available by cultural institutions, including datasets and government information.

Do we need another platform?

The first element of the DPLA is code–it will use open source technologies in developing a platform, and will release all code (and the tools and services this code builds) as open source software.  The so-called “Beta Sprint” that took place last year invited people to “grapple, technically and creatively, with what has already been accomplished and what still need to be developed…” 7. The winning “betas” deal largely with issues of interoperability and linked data. Certainly if a platform could be developed that solved these problems, this would be a huge boon to the library world.

Getting involved withe DPLA and looking to the future

While the governance structure is becoming more formal, there are plenty of opportunities to become involved with the DPLA. Six working groups (called workstreams) were formed to discuss content, audience, legal issues, business models, governance, and technical issues. Becoming involved with the DPLA is as easy as signing up for an  account on the wiki and noting your name and comments on the working group page in which are interested. You can also sign up mailing lists to stay involved in the project. Like many such projects, the work is done by the people who show up and speak up. If you read this and have an opinion on the direction the DPLA should take, it is not difficult to make sure your opinion gets heard by the right people.

Like all writing about the DPLA since the planning began, turning to a thought experiment seems the next logical rhetorical step. Let’s say that the DPLA succeeds to the point where all public domain books in the United States are digitized and available in multiple formats to any person in the country, and a significant number of in copyright works are also available. What does this mean for libraries as a whole? Does it make public libraries research libraries? How does it change the nature of research libraries? And lastly, will all this information create a new desire for knowledge among the American people?

  1. Darnton, Robert. “A Library Without Walls.” NYRblog, October 4, 2010.
  2. McGowan, Ian. “National Libraries.” In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition, 3850–3863.
  3. “Frequently Asked Questions – About the Library (Library of Congress).” Text, n.d.
  4. Dillon, Cy. “Planning the Digital Public Library of America.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 19, no. 1 (March 2012): 101–107.
  5. Rothman, David H. “It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 24, 2011, sec. The Chronicle Review.
  6. “Elements of the DPLA.” Digital Public Library of America, n.d.
  7. “Digital Public Library of America Steering Committee Announces ‘Beta Sprint’ ”, May 20, 2011.