Building the Digital Public Library of America

Building the Digital Public Library of America, 11:30-1:00

We now have the technology to create the greatest library the world has ever known, and bring it within clicking distance of virtually every person on earth – at least everyone on the Internet. The technology is available, but is the will and the funding? Robert Darnton, University Librarian at Harvard University and a founder of the Digital Public Library of America, discusses the project from the beginning to its current state.


Hearing Robert Darnton speak at NELA is one of the highlights of the conference. We are all interested in hearing about the now well publicized DPLA and what it means to libraries. We all heard about the contentious Google Book Project, and we hear about places like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina digitizing their whole collection for availability. But what about a fair and legitimate digital collection in the US?

Darnton began by talking about the role Harvard University might play in the sharing of knowledge. Should Harvard’s library be considered as a national asset? Should its wealth be shared? The history of libraries has a dark side, a history, for instance, of stealing books from private collections, or eliminating books on undesirable topics. Even the Harvard library had a system in place to keep people out of its confines.

It is not just the physical barriers but the invisible barriers that historically have kept people out of the library. Darnton, and Enlightenment scholar, reminds us of the words of our forefathers. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The field of knowledge is the common property of mankind.” It is this model of reason that Darnton cites as motivation for the DPLA.

The DPLA has an opportunity to break down these barriers that block access of knowledge to people. The project presents a great opportunity in the magnitude of Diderot’s Encyclopedia. There is a new idea of openness that is transforming the world of knowledge. Many courses are being offered for free. Darnton cites the open source software, open metadata, open course, open information highway as reasons to believe that a new age of Enlightenment is upon us, certainly a new opportunity. With the expense of journals and other subscriptions lining the coffers of the publishing industry, we are resented with a model that is no longer sustainable for libraries. A medical journal that was around $12 in the 1970s is about $1200 now. It’s one thing to talk about the model no longer suitable for us, but now Darnton says that something will be done about it.

Harvard expects to be militant about a response to the imbalance in the publishing world. One of the recent breakthroughs happened when Congress mandated the NIH to provide its publications free through open access. We are othe edge of serious work to provide open access.

Google is the most recent example of an attempt to digitize the collections of the great research libraries in the US. Unlike Google, The DPLA offers a clear blueprint for creating a shared infrastructure to serve the public good, including the sharing of information and the use of technology to enable new opportunities for knowledge where others have failed. Where other digital projects have operated in a silo, the DPLA will break down previous obstacles by offering a different set of standards, strong organization through collections and legal expertise, and experience from public and private industry.

The idea of a digital public library and the framework for implementing such an ambitious project almost seems impossible, but the framework and rationale are in place to succeed in opening the gates to knowledge. As Darnton points out, our age makes it possible for a Digital Public Library of America to succeed; it also makes it essential. The time has come. I expect that the DPLA will change the future of information sharing and systems in ways the introduction of the Internet did a couple off decades ago.


About zlnewell

Humanities Librarian interested in information, global culture, the Middle East, travel, sports and coffee.
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