Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to open April 2013


By April 2013, the Digital Public Library of America should be up and running.  With this announcement, Robert Darnton opened a recent talk about DPLA sponsored by Harvard Library Strategic Conversations.

Darnton reviewed DPLA’s brief history, including its origin at a meeting at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute on 1 October 2010, its successful coalition of foundations committed to providing financial support, its appointment of a steering committee, and its selection of John Palfrey as the steering committee’s chair.  Six “workstreams” have been designed to arrive at consensus-driven plans in the following areas:

To join a workstream listserv, consult the appropriate web page.

Darnton insisted that DPLA was not simply a response to Google, though DPLA is open to working with Google and has extended invitations to that effect.  He provided an incisive history of Google Book Search’s legal troubles, and noted that DPLA has much to learn from that history.

Next, John Palfrey (chair of the DPLA steering committee, and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives), outlined some of DPLA’s goals, though he conceded that the exact nature of the DPLA was still be determined:

  • constructing a creative and technologically sophisticated learning environment beyond that created by e-books.  This involves imaginative work by architects, programmers, catalogers, users, and and just about anyone else prepared to think innovatively.
  • considering the following elements that will shape the still indistinct and ever-evolving nature of DPLA:
    • code will be free and open source
    • metadata will aggregate existing data and create additional data.  It has already arrived at an agreement to network with Europeana, Europe’s digitized knowledge-sharing platform.
    • content will include all media types
    • tools and services will facilitate public innovation.  Palfrey provided as an example the use of a “scanabego,” a truck with scanning tools that would be driven across the country to local historical societies, offering to digitize their records in exchange for linking those records to DPLA.
    • DPLA’ community will be widespread and participatory.  According the DPLA web site, “DPLA will actively support the community of users and developers that want to reuse and extend its content, data, and metadata.”

In the discussion that followed the presentation, one of the most interesting comments was Charles Nesson’s description of a Digital Registry Project to address the copyright issues that plagued Google Books.  The Registry seeks pro bono commitments from major law firms “to defend the copyright status determinations of major cultural institutions such as libraries and universities” (see the memo available on Charles Nesson’s web site.)  According to the DPLA web site,

The objective of the Digital Registry Project is to create a comprehensive registry to undergird digital exploitation of intellectual property—for personal, educational, or commercial use. This vision encompasses all copyrighted works, all orphan works, and all works in the public domain. The Digital Registry seeks to kick start the registry process by beginning with those works that belong no one and therefore belong to everyone: the public domain. This registry is intended to be a simple and unassailable starting point for all larger registries.

More information is available at the extensive and carefully designed DPLA web site and the DPLA blog, which is guaranteed to interest emob readers.



4 Responses to “Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to open April 2013”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks, Anna, for this thorough, informative update on the DPLA.

    The Digital Registry project certainly appears to have been conceived with a firm eye on the lessons learned from Google’s various legal suits. Especially against this backdrop, the Digital Registry project’s plan to focus on delineating first works in the public domain makes much sense. I do wonder how rights to items in special collections will be handled (I suspect much as they are now)

    Offering diversity and a breadth of substantial expertise, the DPL’s steering committee features an impressive roster. I do hope that its members will urge the adoption of a preservation policy for the originals that are being digitized as well as for enabling access to them. Andrew Stauffer’s recent blog version of his essay “The Troubled Future of the Nineteenth-Century Book” (Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2011) underscores the need for such a policy in light of the troubling trend to view digital surrogates as replacements for the print artifact. The end result is a large-scale retirement of print originals:

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report [“Cloud-sourcing Research Collections: Managing Print in the Mass-digitized Library Environment”] finds that yes, the replacement of ‘low-use print collections’ with HathiTrust surrogates makes a lot of sense. Malpas concludes that ‘It is in the interest of all academic libraries that mass-digitized collections…improve to the degree that low-use print inventory can be retired in favor of increased reliance on digital surrogates’ (64). Such recommendations from leading policy makers in the academic library community suggest the seriousness of the challenge to public-domain print collections in the coming decade.

    The presence of figures such as Darnton and Jerome McGann on the steering committee should help, but not all of those serving have shown in the past a concern for the material artifact.

    In the video of his 17 January 2012 Joint Information Systems Committee/ Society of College, National and University Libraries (JISC/SCONUL) talk, Darnton offers a detailed overview of the DPL to his audience of UK scholars and librarians that seems to cover (understandably) some of the same points outlined above. One can listen to the entire presentation.

    In this talk Darnton spends time discussing the economics of bundle deals, their escalating costs, and the harm this expense exercises over the purchase of monographs. In doing so he helps establish the urgency for establishing the DPLA. (This past August we discussed the issue of bundling in The Big Bundle Steal: Open Access and Subscription Databases; the post contains some sources on this pressing problem for those interested in learning more). Elsewhere Darnton estimates that building the metadata accounts for roughly 20% of the digitizing costs—a useful figure to have when one wishes to breakdown the total expense. While alluding to extended debates about the project’s ultimate name, Darnton does clarify the DPLA is not intended as library for the elite but rather as a library truly for the “people of the U.S. … “a very broad public” …’the ordinary citizen.” At the same time, he also stresses that the DPLA differs from public libraries; as a repository for our cultural heritage that all can access, it complements them.


  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. You are right to point to the need to preserve books in this process. Stauffer’s post is an excellent discussion of the problem emerging in libraries as a result of access to digital surrogates. My library has already decided to replace print articles with digital articles–without much of a discussion.

    As Stauffer notes,

    If our academic research libraries replace large swaths of their original nineteenth-century artifacts with these hastily-executed scans, they will be trading away irreplaceable legacies and gutting certain disciplines that rely on the evidence of the past. They will also be putting the real world of the historical book ever further out of reach of the students, even as they ostensibly are providing access to it via surrogates. In such a future, nineteenth-century books will be simultaneously instantly accessible and out of reach, splayed and untouched, so that, as things of paper and ink, they will be even more difficult to remember or rediscover than things truly forgotten.

    I don’t think the DPLA intends to replace printed books. But poorly funded librarians who are always in need of additional space may perceive the DPLA as an opportunity to find space by eliminating books.


  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I certainly don’t think that Darnton or McGann would intend to have the digital surrogates replace printed works, and I suspect that others on the steering committee would share their interest in both. Yet, I fear that others might not share their view.

    That the report recommending such replacements is authored by a program officer of OCLC, “one of the world’s leading centers devoted exclusively to the challenges facing libraries and archives in a rapidly changing information technology environment. ” (“about us,” OCLC) does give pause. And some of those on the steering committee of DPLA have expressed similar views in the past.


  4. Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Is Launched | Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    […] to launch the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) by April 2013 in a post that can be found here/. While launch dates are often delayed, it is an auspicious sign that the DPLA will go live […]


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