A First Look at the Digital Public Library of America

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

Last Thursday at noon the Digital Public Library of America launched its website. The opening festivities, which had been booked solid with a long wait list for weeks, were canceled, since the venue at the main branch of the Boston Public Library was adjacent to the site of [the bombing in Boston earlier that week][dpla-logo]. But the DPLA, which is a website and not a location, went ahead with the launch of the public service anyway.

The DPLA is a project that gathers together the digital collections from many partner institutions. The DPLA aggregates the metadata for these items and points users to the digital copies available at the partners’ websites. As more and more institutions join the DPLA, it will be the universal place to search for open digital resources. The DPLA itself gives a fuller explanation of what it does:

  • A portal that delivers students, teachers, scholars, and the public to incredible resources, wherever they may be in America. Far more than a search engine, the portal provides innovative ways to search and scan through the united collection of millions of items, including by timeline, map, format, and topic.
  • A platform that enables new and transformative uses of our digitized cultural heritage. With an application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, the DPLA can be used by software developers, researchers, and others to create novel environments for learning, tools for discovery, and engaging apps.
  • An advocate for a strong public option in the twenty-first century. For most of American history, the ability to access materials for free through public libraries has been a central part of our culture, producing generations of avid readers and a knowledgeable, engaged citizenry. The DPLA will work, along with like-minded organizations and individuals, to ensure that this critical, open intellectual landscape remains vibrant and broad in the face of increasingly restrictive digital options. The DPLA will seek to multiply openly accessible materials to strengthen the public option that libraries represent in their communities.

The DPLA has over two million items in its catalog so far. Some of these items are displayed in exhibitions, such as this exhibit about Prohibition. You can access all the rest by searching or browsing categories. For example, my first search at the DPLA was “religious conversion“–the topic of my dissertation. One of the results is this 1832 letter by William Hazzard Barnwell, describing the conversion of some family members and the religious instruction of his slaves. The DPLA item provides me with the metadata about the letter, and a link to a scan hosted at the College of Charleston Libraries, the institution that holds the manuscript letter. The DPLA search is straightforward, but it has the added feature of displaying the items on a timeline or a map.

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][Screen shot of DPLA timeline] 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 both before and after the formal launch. Most important, the DPLA has an open API and open data, which allows developers to build applications on top of the DPLA, and which allows researchers to access the collections programmatically. I’m no expert on metadata or APIs, but it’s apparent from their description of the philosophy behind the API that the DPLA has thought out the way they represent data in detailed and thought-provoking ways.

The DPLA launch has been well reported. Here are just a few of the articles, beginning with recent coverage and going back to discussions of the development of the DPLA:

Here’s to the hardworking DPLA staff–Dan Cohen, Emily Gore, Amy Rudersdorf, Kenny Whitebloom, and probably others–board of directors, committees, partner institutions, and funders. The DPLA is already a useful tool with some amazing functionality, and as more partners join the effort, the DPLA will only become more important to scholars and to the nation.