Digital Public Library of America: Some announcements and reviews (updated)

Probably the best third-party article on the Digital Public Library of America appeared in Arts Technica, with the not-so-good title of “The Digital Public Library of America: adding Gravitas to your Internet Search.”

In the coming years, the DPLA has a few evident goals: getting contemporary works into the database, working with state and regional libraries across the nation to bring their archives under the umbrella of the DPLA, and making sure all of the amassed metadata is clear and concise so that others can use it. The organization currently offers access to items like daguerreotypes, portraits, older scientific articles, pamphlets, and old books. These items have been donated by other institutions and are hosted on those sites. Currently, when you search at the DPLA website, you’re taken to, say, the archive hosted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library or the Uintah County Library in Utah. That second archive might represent the more interesting goal of the DPLA: to get small town libraries and archives online and linked up to the DPLA API. Of the 42 state and regional libraries that have digitized all or part of their archives, Cohen says seven are currently searchable through the DPLA site. “I’m going to be trying to get the next 35 to work with us,” [Dan] Cohen told Ars.

There’s a more general announcement on the Scholarly Kitchen blog by Joseph Esposito, who notes the DPLA “is not a library at all, but an intelligently constructed catalogue to many libraries, which are contributing their collections.  DPLA, in other words, is a “pointer” service, which is, I think, exactly what the world wants.” Esposito stresses the DPLA’s invitation to developers to write new applications, and argues that the DPLA people understand the web and developers. However, he misses a lot of the strengths of the DPLA, and worries out loud about the everything-should be-free people (which become a point of discussion in the comments).

UPDATE 4/23/2013: A piece from David Rothman on his website LibraryCity is critical of what he calls the “the academic-and-hacker mindset” at DPLA and its emphasis on academic scholarly concerns and special collections (including exhibitions) versus the interests of typical public and K-12 library users. In a separate post focused primarily on school libraries and K-12 education, he urges that the DPLA give greater (if not equal) weight to K-12 educational concerns. Rothman argues in both posts above and in others previously published that the DPLA should either fully commit to a public library model or rename itself as an academic library. (Don’t let his tone put you off. Rothman raises good points, although his prose raises too many points into too small a space and he repeats himself. He’s a Virginian educator and librarian, who is profoundly concerned about libraries, education, and primary and secondary school education; he was innovator on e-readers, he founded the Teleread news site and has started lobbying for a DLA endowment.)

Updated 4/24/2013:   Scott McLemee at the Inside Higher Education website, April 23, has an viewpoint piece, praising the DPLA: “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.” He warns (with a dated and not-terribly helpful metaphor) “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.” And McLemee ran some searches that turned up bad links (Walt Whitman), quirky holdings (Benjamin Franklin and Phyllis Wheatley). McLemee’s searches suggest ways that the DPLA’s search could be made more helpful to end users. (I’ll be writing a post on improving the DPLA’s tech side.)

Other coverage:

  • Lincoln Fuller, ProfHacker, had a notice at the Chronicle of Higher Education website, April 22. He links to other coverage and describes his own experience. Best insight: “One of the remarkable things about the DPLA is its openness. The governance of the DPLA is open in that its planning initiatives have been open and available for public comment. The source code that runs the DPLA is available on GitHub, and developers have been organizing “hackathons” to improve the code….”
  • Time has a short notice, comparing it the Library of Alexandria. (This struck me as very insubstantial, but it appeared in general interest national media, not just The Atlantic.)
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By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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