Digital Public Library of America: Big moment for open access, or too big for its own good?

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on April 19, 2013

From The News Desk

Yesterday, the official, albeit beta, unveiling of the Digital Public Library of America took place. Bear with me because it’s kind of a big deal. The DPLA stitches together far-flung material from archives, libraries, and museums and makes it available to anyone with a yen for searching digital databases. Anyone who has stumbled through a university or research center’s digital databases only to run into innumerable content walls knows how valuable a resource a single point of entry could be. What’s more, the data will be made available to software developers to create apps.

The whole idea is for the DLPA to become a nexus for libraries, librarians, and users to come together and discover content. John Palfrey, president of DPLA’s board and one of the original brains behind the whole operation, didn’t overstate it when he said in a statement: “We cannot begin to imagine the extraordinary things that librarians and their many partners can accomplish with this open platform and such extraordinarily rich materials... We will create new knowledge together and make accessible, free to all, information that people need in order to thrive in a democracy.”

Undoubtedly DPLA’s project is a vast one, perhaps too vast. While its vision is clear, its nomenclature has caused some to wonder. Nicholas Carr writes that librarians had concerns with calling the DPLA a “library.” Their worry was that, “by presenting itself as the country’s public library, the DPLA could lend credence to “the unfounded belief that public libraries can be replaced in over 16,000 communities in the US by a national digital library.” Perhaps this isn’t a good way to conceptualize the project.

DPLA President Dan Cohen described it as a “portal,” and the creation of a new platform for centralizing digital archives but he also thinks of it as a library of sorts, albeit a new conceptualization of this age-old institution and a complement to the physical library buildings we know and love. “Naming things is hard,” Cohen told me, “but I think ‘library’ is a correct and expansive term.” He added that part of DPLA’s goal is to offer “things that physical libraries don’t normally traffic in," like the aggregation of metadata. It won’t, however, have recent bestsellers and other library favorites. It will instead focus on “rare content.”

The DPLA, then, isn’t creating a new “online library.” It’s more an education portal, a new and hopefully better way to view online open-access content.

Last month the DPLA partnered with the New York Public Library to provide access to images and data from two of its American History collections. Beyond this, numerous other partnerships have been announced over the past two years. The launch event was to be held at the Boston Public Library but was postponed because of the recent tragic events.

One potential pitfall oft-cited by critics is there are endless other online resources. Project Gutenberg, for one, is known as one of the oldest digital libraries to date. And there are  smaller, more concise projects aiming to do similar things as well. The startup Artsy aims to “make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.”

Cohen counters this by imagining loftier aspirations, pointing to the DPLA as step one in the creation of a “limitless institution.” DPLA board prez Palfrey touts its network model as much like the Internet itself, connecting data to user.

It's astounding that there hasn’t been a centralized project by, say, the Library of Congress in this vein. In a separate article, Palfrey writes that “The DPLA can be a part of the argument for increased support for libraries.” However, it’s a odd that public libraries as an entity haven’t created something like this until now. I asked Cohen if the LOC might ever be involved with the DPLA, and he said he would love to collaborate with them and plans to reach out as soon as possible.

The DPLA aims to allow more access to information and make it easier to access. Who can really dispute that? And the critiques are not based on politics, but on vision and direction. While obvious issues with copyright haven’t even been touched – Cohen explains the program is looking into “alternates of the traditional copyright scheme” – the project marks a momentous occasion for open-access digitized education resources.