Inside the Digital Public Library of America

February 10, 2014

A Social Movement for Information Professionals

Beyond providing open access to a variety of collections on an online portal, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a social movement that is bringing together information professionals and resources for the public good. Chief architects Maura Marx '04LS and John Palfrey knew they wanted to "capitalize on the collective initiative of librarians and archivists," said DPLA Project Coordinator Kenny Whitebloom '12LS, who helped the organization grow from its infancy while he was a project coordinator at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Executive Director Dan Cohen, who was recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education as being one of the "top ten tech innovators" in academia, is exploring new avenues for cooperation. "While we've known for some time how to technically create a nationwide digital library, the DPLA is a social project that requires collaboration from all walks of life. We are currently examining how we motivate professionals to help us achieve the DPLA's vision," said Cohen.

Despite a skeleton staff of six professionals and an intern, the DPLA has had an impressive start. The DPLA aims to make collections in American libraries, archives, museums, and information institutions freely available to the world. It seeks to "contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America's heritage, to the efforts and data of science."

Since its April 2013 launch, the DPLA currently provides access to more than five million resources in collections across the nation's various 1,100 museums, libraries, and archives. The DPLA uses the metadata records of items, such as photographs, manuscripts, books, sounds, and moving images, among others, from various institutions' collections across the country to provide free access to resources. Its online Google-like search box enables users to search the DPLA's collections by timeline, map, format, and topic or browse through the DPLA staff or partner digitally curated exhibitions. Personalization features, such as saving items to customized lists and sharing those lists with others, are also available.

Using a modified version of the Europeana metadata schema to create their metadata records, the DPLA has global intentions to link their resources to other national digital libraries. Cohen connects monthly with Europeana to discuss "tips, tricks-of-the-trade, and solutions to overcoming challenges." In September 2013, the DPLA's freely available application programming interface (API) was used 1.7 million times by software developers, researchers, and others as part of discovery learning tools and apps. Hack-a-thon contests have produced creative results, which are showcased in the DPLA's App Library. For example, the Search DPLA and Europeana app enables users to search Europeana and the DPLA resources simultaneously.

Collaboration, coordination, and motivating information professionals to participate in DPLA initiatives are among the organization's top priorities. The Community Reps program has recruited more than ninety volunteers who are conducting local community outreach to spread the word about the DPLA through social media, presentations at events, and other outlets. Through their Service Hubs program, state and regional organizations collaborate with content providers to aggregate digitized content into the DPLA's single access point. The DPLA currently has more than 1,000 participating institutions in the United States, brought in through nine Service Hubs. Partner institutions, such as Minnesota Reflections, report a win-win scenario in which they see an increase in new and repeat visits while the DPLA continues to augment its collection. In addition, a million-dollar grant from the Gates Foundation will enable the DPLA to train librarians on how to use digital technology to curate and archive resources.

The DPLA's outreach efforts culminated at the October 2013 DPLAfest, which had 700 registered attendees. The event was co-hosted by Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS), the Boston Public Library, and Northeastern University's College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Interactive sessions provided inspiring new directions for DPLA to pursue and validated current strategies. In addition to the existing geographic hub partners, DPLAfest attendees raised the idea of including a subject hub model to aggregate areas of interests among smaller institutions and entice museums to participate. Others discussed creating widgets for public libraries that integrate with discovery services such as EBSCO. Simmons GSLIS featured two sessions that asserted the DPLA's digital collection and open access initiatives:

  • GSLIS Director of the Digital Stewardship Certificate program and Professor Peter Botticelli facilitated an interactive workshop, "Innovative Digital Exhibits and Collection Building" that featured the Harvard University's Houghton Library's Emily Dickinson Archive.The interactive session emphasized the importance of developing high quality metadata to access collections across multiple locations.
  • GSLIS Associate Professor Robin Peek, Associate Professor Jeffrey Pomerantz '97LS of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science, and Sandra McIntyre, Director of the Mountain West Digital Library presented "Maximizing Open Access and the DPLA." The presentation discussed how the DPLA is using metadata records of resources to expand public access to collections nationwide.

As a keynote speaker at DPLAfest, Simmons GSLIS Dean Eileen Abels spoke about the opportunities DPLA presents that will be available to libraries, archives, and museums that will encourage "information professionals to be innovative, technologically savvy, and entrepreneurial." While Simmons GSLIS is usually one of the first places to receive job and internship postings from DPLA, Cohen reiterated that he looks forward to developing the organizational capacity to manage and support additional meaningful internship experiences.

In the meantime, Cohen says 2014 goals involve diversifying content and expanding IT infrastructure. Coordinating the metadata from new partner institutions into a standardized data model is an ongoing work in progress. Before 2013 ended, the DPLA hired Mark A. Matienzo as the organization's first director of technology. As the former digital archivist for Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University Library and technical architect for the ArchivesSpace project, Matienzo is charged with developing staff and IT resources, which will include the addition of two technology specialists in the beginning of 2014. Once the infrastructure has been firmly established, the next phase will involve outreach efforts to communities, enthusiasts, and schools to learn about how to use the DPLA's resources.

The DPLA also seeks to expand its collection in areas where there are geographic gaps, such as the Pacific Northwest and Midwest. Championing for open access as an nonprofit educational organization "may be transformative in filling in the chronological gaps of public domain information that has been published after 1923," says Cohen, who is connecting with publishers to learn about alternative arrangements to make content available within the existing copyright and fair use legislative framework.

With plans for expansion on the horizon and demonstrated successful leadership at the helm, DPLA's promising future is filled with endless possibilities to advance research, promote open access, develop new discovery tools, and create new opportunities for information professionals.


For additional information, DPLAfest workshop presentations can be found on Google Docs. Tweets can also be reviewed by searching #dplafest.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer