How the “Digital Public Library of America” is Changing the Game

In class, we’ve been calling it “the abyss.” We use the term to refer to that moment – or set of moments – where the issues we’ve raised about higher education seem countless and endlessly intertwined, and the solutions seem elusive, blurry, and never quite fully formed. During our second week of pursuing our own topics of pedagogical interest, I broadly chose to explore digital archives, or what some may refer to as an “abyss” of its own.

To give you an idea of their proliferation, a “Digital Archives” Google search returned 637,000,000 results, with such hits as Washington State Digital Archives, Catholic Archives, African American Archives, National Archives Experience, Native American Archives, September 11 Digital Archive, and the New York Philharmonic Digital Archive, to name only a few. Even if you limit your search to something more specific – like U.S. History Digital Archives – the results are still shocking. Clearly, digitized historical materials abound, each with their own searching system that must be learned and mastered.

This “abyss of information” issue has not gone unnoticed, catching the attention of librarians, archivists, scholars, and educators. That’s why, in order to make this post more manageable, I’ve chosen to focus on a different kind of digital archive – the Digital Public Library of America – which seeks to wed many of these disparate sources scattered across the country’s memory institutions into one, easy-to-use database. In other words, the DPLA isn’t digitizing anything new; instead, they seek to organize and make searchable many of the biggest and brightest digital archives projects that have changed the face of teaching and research over the course of the past decade.

Led by Dan Cohen (digital history guru) and an all-star Board of Directors, the DPLA began its planning process in October 2010 with a meeting that drew leaders from libraries, academia, and technology into a conversation about how to develop a platform that could organize and make accessible the nation’s living heritage. Two months later, substantial funding streams materialized, and a two-year grassroots movement among hundreds of libraries, innovators, and digital humanists began to “scope, design, and construct the DPLA.” The work came to fruition when the site launched in April 2013.

Now that it’s up and running, the site organizes its over 450 project partners – and their millions of pages of digitized content – into two key groups. The first, called Service Hubs, consist of a national network of over 40 state and regional digital libraries that “aggregate data on behalf of a given state or region.” For instance, the Service Hub “Mountain West Digital Library” is a project that was well under way before the DPLA came along and had already digitized books, manuscripts, photos, and the like from the libraries, archives, and museums across Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and Arizona. The DPLA, then, takes all of the metadata (the set of information about a particular digitized source, i.e. call number, author, title, etc.) from an organization like MWDL and funnels it into their massive search engine. That way, if a user was to search the DPLA for something contained in MWDL digital archive, metadata records of relevant items would appear and, within each metadata record, one would find a direct link to the particular item on the MWDL’s site. Some other examples of Service Hubs include:

  • “Digital Commonwealth”: resources from Massachusetts’s libraries, museum, archives, and historical societies
  • The “Digital Libraries” of the following states: Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina

The other types of project partners contributing to the DPLA are classified as Content Hubs, or “large digital museums, archives, or repositories that maintain a one-to-one relationship with the DPLA.” The use of the word large in the description above might be a bit of an understatement since Content Hubs are required “to provide more 250,000 unique metadata records that resolve [link] to digital objects (online texts, photographs, manuscript material, art work, etc.)… and [these institutions] commit to maintaining and editing those records as needed.” Some examples of Content Hubs include:

  • Harvard Library: contributing material from collections titled “Colonial Harvard,” “Trial Narratives,” and “Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts,” among others.
  • ARTstor: contributing images from museum collections housed at such institutions as the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery.
  • National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): contributing 1.2 million digital copies including America’s founding documents, WWII posters, Mathew Brady Civil War photograph, and more.

In all, the DPLA contains some 2.5 million records that link to actual digital objects that the user can view and, in some cases (depending on the owning institution), download.  In the age of the information glut, the DPLA represents an organizational triumph. Instead of digital archives operating on islands, we now have a way to search out sources and institutions in a central location with a user-friendly interface. As far as I can tell, the DPLA will likely continue to reach out to additional project partners, further growing their collection and easing our research woes in the sea of digital choices.

If you’re looking for a more inclusive list of digital archives, I recommend the following post by Open Education Database titled, “250+ Killer Digital Libraries and Archives.” It’s a brilliant state-by-state breakdown of the some of the better and more well-known digital archives projects.

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