Thursday, April 18, 2013

Digital Public Library of America Launches Today

Digital Public Library of America homepage
Utopian and pragmatic: these are the two poles that Robert Darnton, the eminent historian, Pforzheimer University professor and director of the Harvard University Libraries, identifies as guiding the process he and others dreamt up years ago, then began collaboratively developing two years ago in 2011, and which will come to fruition, when the Digital Public Library of America launches today.

"Háw-che-ke-súg-ga, He Who Kills
the Osages, Chief of the Tribe" (1832)
oil on canvas
George Catlin (1796-1872)
From the Smithsonian Institution
What is the Digital Public Library of America? It will be an online site that will make available to everyone with Internet access large portions of the already-digitized collections of many major American private and public libraries, archives and museums. While Google initially seemed the likely repository for the sorts of materials the DPLA will be hosting, its attempts--unsurprisingly, as a private corporation--to monetize access to the vast array of materials it has scanned in, and court rulings limiting full access to some of these materials, both have come to mean that Google may be a participant down the road, but the organizers of the DPLA have instead found private foundations to underwrite the project, and private and public institutions with extensive, already digitized archives, that they are willing to make available to anyone interested in exploring them.

Is the DPLA only open to people in the USA? Based on Darnton's comments in the New York Review of Books article linked above and what he has previously stated, the portal will be open to everyone able to access US websites. In addition, an immense storehouse of materials from Europe will be available via interconnection with Europeana, a super-aggregator of materials from 27 countries within and sponsored by the European Union. Darnton predicts that within a generation (or two, depending), a much vaster array of the world's materials will be available via the site. I immediately thought of the manuscripts stored in northern Mali that were thought to have been badly damaged when the northern part of that country fell under the sway of radicals who declared it an autonomous country, though it turns out they were not harmed as much as previously conjectured. A digital archive might be one way, alongside better material efforts, to preserve them for humankind.

Darnton appears to see only upsides to this effort, and I agree that it suggests to potentially extraordinary possibilities for knowledge preservation and production. I sincerely hope, however, that it also does not become an excuse, or the excuse, for financially strapped private and public institutions, organizations and governments of all kinds to eliminate or continue to gut physical libraries.  DPLA should be a complement and supplement, not a substitute or replacement, for the libraries we have, which deserve our fullest public and private support.

Now please excuse me while I go check out the DPLA.

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