Commentary on the Digital Public Library of America
The carnage and manhunt in Boston last week obliged the Digital Public Library of America to postpone its grand opening festivities at the Boston Public Library until sometime this fall. So sudden a change of plans could only create a logistical nightmare. The roster of museums, archives, and libraries participating in DPLA runs into the hundreds, and the two-day event (Thursday and Friday) was booked to capacity, with scores of people on the standby list. But the finish line for the marathon was just outside the library, and rescheduling unavoidable.
The delay applied only to the gala, not to DPLA itself: the site launched on Thursday at noon, E.S.T., right on schedule. The response online has been, for the most part, enthusiasm just short of euphoria. The collection contains not quite 2.4 million digital “objects,” including books, manuscripts, photographs, recorded sound, and film/video. More impressive than the quantity of material, though, is how much thought has gone into how it’s made available.
That’s true even of the site’s address: DP.LA. I’ve seen at least one grumble about how anomalous this looks. Which it does, but in a good way. Even if you forget the address, it takes no effort to reconstruct. The brevity of the URL makes it convenient to type on a cellphone; when you do, the site’s homepage is readily navigable on the small screen. That demonstrates an awareness of how a good many visitors will actually use the site – more so than is often the case with library catalogs online.
DPLA is the work of people who understand that design is not just icing on the digital cake, but a significant (even decisive) factor in how we engage with content in the first place. They have made available an application program interface (API) for the site, which is a very useful thing indeed, according to my source in the geek community. With the API, users can create new tools for sorting and presenting the library’s materials. Combine it with a geolocation API, for example, and you could put together an application displaying the available photographs of the street you are on, organized decade by decade.
The library’s potential for assembling and integrating an incredible range of documents and knowledge is almost unimaginable. Excitement seems appropriate. But in describing my own impressions of DPLA, I want to be a little more qualified about the enthusiasm it inspires. Things are not nearly as far along as some comments have implied. This isn’t just naysaying. The site is currently in its beta version, and many of my points will probably be nullified in due course. But it’s better to be aware of some of the limitations beforehand than to visit the site expecting a digital Library of Alexandria.
One thing to keep in mind is that DPLA is not so much a library as an enormous card catalog, with the “shelves” of books, photographs, and so forth being the digital collections of libraries and historical societies, large and small, all over the country. The range of material offered through the Digital Public Library of America reflects what people running the local collections have decided to digitize and make available. What DPLA gathers and makes searchable is the metadata: descriptions of what a document contains (its subject, origins, copyright status, and so on) and of its characteristics as a digital object (size and file type).
The DPLA “card” gives the available information about an item, often accompanied by a thumbnail image of the book cover, manuscript, etc. – along with a link taking you to the digital repository in which it appears. DPLA puts the metadata into a standard format. But much of the content-description will inevitably be done by local librarians and archivists, making for a considerable range in detail. Often the DPLA entry will provide a bare minimum of description, though some entries run to a paragraph or two.
But the entry is only as strong as its link. It seemed appropriate to make one of my earliest searches at the Digital Public Library for the quintessential American poet Walt Whitman. There were 52 hits, with 9 of the top 10 being manuscripts of his letters in the Department of Justice collection at the National Archives. Not one of the links for the letters worked. By contrast, I had no trouble getting access to photographs of the poet held by the Smithsonian Institution.
This proved par for the course. Most links worked -- but out of two dozen entries for items in National Archives, only one did. It’s hardly surprising (gremlins have a strong work ethic), but it shows the need for troubleshooting. Users of the library can be expected to point out such glitches, if encouraged to do so. It might be worth adding a widget that would appear in each record allowing users to flag an inoperative link, a typographical error, or some problem with the content description. It's true that the site has a contact page, but people are more likely to report errors if they are encouraged to do so.
Continued thumbing through the catalog demonstrated how early a stage DPLA is in accumulating its collection – and how much fine-tuning its search engine may need.
Entering “Benjamin Franklin,” you get more than 1,400 results. Out of the first 30, all but 3 are documents (usually death certificates) for people named after the inventor and statesman. A toolbar on the left allows the user to refine the search in various ways – but the most useful filter, by subject, is at the very bottom and easy to overlook.
It was encouraging to get 17 results when searching for Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, but 15 of them led to records from the 1940 census, by which point she had been dead the better part of 150 years. Only one of the other two was at all germane to her as historical figure. The other concerned an Atlanta branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association named in her honor.
I expected to locate just a few things about the Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s, but in fact got no hits at all. At the other extreme, DPLA has records for more than 90 items pertaining to the Ku Klux Klan – photographs, handbills, and cartoons, both pro- and anti-. Quite likely these were among the most striking and attention-grabbing items in various collections, and were digitized for use in print publications and online. It's concrete evidence that the Digital Public Library of America's offerings will be only as representative as the decisions made by the contributing institutions.
A number of foundations and government agencies have lent their support to DPLA, and its progress towards incorporation as a 501(c)3 organization should make it an even more appealing destination for the big philanthropic bucks. But important as funding certainly is for the library’s future, what it will ultimately be decisive for its success is a massive infusion of intellectual capital. Some of it will come from code writers hacking out new applications using the library's metadata and API. More than that, though, DPLA will need to encourage the participation and the expertise of people using the site. It's an impressive foundation and scaffold, but it's up to scholars, librarians, and other knowledgeable citizens to build the library, from the ground up.