Order and Liberty: The DPLA Launches

I wasn’t entirely sure what the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) would look like when the long-awaited launch date of April 18 approached. The suspense is finally over: it looks great.

April 18, 2013

I wasn’t entirely sure what the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) would look like when the long-awaited launch date of April 18 approached. The suspense is finally over: it looks great.

The DPLA is an effort to unify access to cultural assets of the nation and make them free to all. We are not the first country to try this; in fact we’re a bit behind, perhaps because we have a tradition of local library planning and support and because we don’t have a true national library. (The Library of Congress is what its name says: it’s Congress’s library. We get to use it, and it does lots of work with copyright and cataloging that benefit libraries everywhere, but it is not a national library.)

This project has been fascinating to watch as it has evolved out of democratic principles and the potential of digital sharing and collaboration. It raises all kinds of questions: what is a library? Do academic and public libraries, museums, and archives serve a common purpose? Who is it for? What does it mean for culture to be “free”? How can a digital library enable access to culture when so much of it is under copyright and not shareable except as the rights-holder allows? 

The DPLAs not going to be a digital version of your local public library’s collections and services – at least, not yet. It is trying to do three things right now: pull together digital assets from major national and regional digital collections into a well-organized, unified, easily searchable portal; provide digital tools and metadata that others can use to build new applications; and provide national leadership in the effort to encourage open and collective access to our shared cultural record.   

In other words, it will help us discover cultural assets scattered across websites and in museums, libraries, and archives. It will help us make new things with the pooled metadata. It will promote conversations we need to be having.

In so many ways, this is such a quintessentially American endeavor. It’s not a government program, though some government entities are participating. It isn’t a tech start-up funded by venture capital that will sell out when the seed money runs out and the price is right. It’s a lot like the public library movement of the nineteenth century.  It’s a truly grass-roots effort to create something that isn’t centralized but will benefit each of us and benefit us collectively – and encourage further creativity through use.  

One example of how this reuse might pay off is a sweet little app developed by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and launched on the same day as the DPLA. StackLife lets you browse the volumes of a library - either a combined catalog of the DPLA, Hathi Trust, and Open Library (1.7 million books) or the Harvard libraries (over 12 million items) by LC call number and shows which volumes have been getting the most use. It is probably not the most efficient way of finding information in books, but it is intriguing to browse the holdings of all of Harvard’s libraries as if they were on one shelf – and to discover what you weren’t even looking for, which is the beauty of browsing.

Those used to the colorful face-out display shelves of Goodreads or LibraryThing may find it a little subdued, but it isn’t meant to serve as a showroom to promote the sale of book. As the site explains, “StackLife is an experiment and a prototype. The main aim is to show the power of the DPLA’s architecture: Anyone can write a new way of browsing the DPLA without asking permission. This makes the DPLA’s collection an open-ended resource for innovation.” All of the contents and the architecture of the DPLA is like this - not just open for browsing and reading, but open for creation and innovation.

A public event was planned for today, symbolically to be held at the Boston Public Library, the first municipal free public library in the U.S., one which bears the iconic inscription “Free to All,” as well as the stern Bostonian admonition: “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.” We need that safeguard today, as the events of this week demonstrated. The response of the people of Boston - first responders, medical personnel, and citizens who ran to help the victims of a vicious attack - shows how a communal sense of civic duty and pride is there to be called on. It puts the self-involved and cowardly Senate thoroughly to shame. Though the event at the library had to be postponed, the worldwide launch of the DPLA is a contemporary embodiment of long-held democratic values. In many ways, the timing couldn’t be better.

The DPLA does what American libraries were always intended to do: make self-improvement a larger, shared, civic enterprise and to safeguard our values and our cultural heritage for the greater good. I’m delighted to see it is off to such a good start. 

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