The Digital Public Library of America: A Look at the Future of Online Archives and Content

Dan Cohen

I have to admit that it is kind of hard to describe what the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) does. Fortunately, I had a chance to hear directly from the founding executive director, Dan Cohen, on what DPLA is doing when he spoke last week at the San Francisco Public Library.

It sounded to me like the online future of libraries. See if you agree.

First, here are some basics about the project.

  • It is a nonprofit project that was conceived at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard in 2010 with seed funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
  • It is only two years old. It opened its virtual doors in April 2013.
  • It is growing rapidly, but only has 11 employees.
  • It is housed in the Boston Public Library at 700 Boylston Street.
  • It has 8.5 million digital items from libraries, archives, and museums from around the country and internationally.
  • Its job is to compile and digitize special collections from wherever they are in the country and house them in a single repository with an easy online searchable format.

To say a bit more about the last bit, the DPLA aims to be a portal for all public domain and open-source licensed digital content (like Creative Commons). It is busily compiling special collections of photographs, manuscripts, and historical and scientific information that are scattered across a number of places.

These places include government and private archives, public libraries, academic libraries, museums, and cultural institutions. It offers free access to the collections to everyone. The DPLA is working on creating some parameters around the content of its collections, as outlined in its 2015 Strategic Plan.

Cohen showed a demonstration of how the DPLA website works by doing a simple search that compiled photos, maps, and accounts of San Francisco history from nearly 100 different places including the New York Public Library, University of Texas, Brigham Young University, and several other places outside of California.

The DPLA: How Is It Different from Other Digital Collections?

One thing I wanted to know going into Dan Cohen's talk was how DPLA is different from important digital repositories like the Internet Archive, Library of Congress, Smithsonian, California Digital Library, Project Gutenberg, and other huge digital special collections.

Dan Cohen said that he views DPLA as an information ocean in which all these other collections plus many more can be accessed.

Open Data: Getting All Public Domain Digital Information in One Place

One prerequisite for having all public domain digital information in one place is to have everything in a common data standard. That's a new thing. At risk of getting a little geeky here, DPLA doesn't actually house most of the digital items displayed on the website, but rather the metadata.

Most of the items on the DPLA website actually live in their original locations — like the maps, photos and documents I mentioned above about San Francisco — from lots of different places.

Metadata is basically a unique ID number and textual information describing an item. All metadata made available by the DPLA is under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) Public Domain Dedication. This means that you can use it for any purpose without attribution (although the DPLA encourages providing attributions wherever possible).

A lot of technical information about DPLA's work on creating an open data standard is available in the policies section of its website. DPLA is building on the work of, a similar project to digitize knowledge using open data, but a few years older than DPLA.

It is geeky stuff indeed, but also a glimpse in to how online library content may well be organized and provided in the future.

A Big Glimpse of the Future of Libraries

Here are some things I recommend looking at on the DPLA website:

  • Digitized books are in an endless vertical stack. Do a quick search on the Bookshelf Section to see what that looks like.
  • DPLA currently has a dozen state-of-the-art online exhibitions on American themes including activism, the Golden Age of radio, parks and public spaces, the Gold Rush, and so forth.
  • Materials are in more than 400 languages and are integrated throughout the site.
  • DPLA has a publicly available API — so you can pull content from the website and post it on your own.
  • It has an app library. Several people have already created open-source apps listed on DPLA that do different things. I like the DPLA Search Widget that puts a DPLA search on your webpage.
  • DPLA of course has a map collection, but has figured out how to overlay a historical map onto Google maps. For instance, you can overlay a historical map of your town or city onto the current one.
  • DPLA's Timeline feature is definitely worth a look. Do a search of anything in history and get all the materials in chronological order. Cohen came out of the history department at George Mason University. This is an example of how DPLA is providing multiple pathways for finding information.

DPLA's Plans: It's Not a Library Replacement

The DPLA doesn't intend to replace libraries, but rather to put public domain content in one place so that researchers and libraries can get to it easily and use it. It will be a technology platform to make digital data available so people can build on it.

DPLA wants the free and unfettered flow of information to be available for anything: art projects, book projects, websites, apps, and probably a bunch of other things we can but dimly imagine.

Cohen admitted that copyrights are still a bit of a mess on the website. About half of the content is public domain, and much of the rest has varying or unclear use permissions. Staff plans to develop clear rights statements in 2015 and to whittle them down to around 20 permission categories.

DPLA is also adding service hubs in 12 states in 2015. These are partners that locate and digitize important special collections. The project is moving into more rural parts of the country with these hubs.

The project is also planning to vigorously reach out to educational institutes so students can access books, images, and films not locally available. DPLA intends forever more to be a strong advocate for the free flow and use of information. I'm told you can actually download the entire DPLA — but I sincerely doubt I have the hard drive space for it.

Please tell us what you like (or don't like) about the Digital Public Library of America below.

Image 1: TechSoup

Images 2 and 3: Digital Public Library of America