The Digital Public Library of America

[This post originally appeared at Hive Talkin’ on 2013-04-18.]

In 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library – some fifty years in the making – to the newly established Library of Congress. His library of works on philosophy, history, science, and literature were meant for “everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.” Jefferson loved knowledge, and the donation of his private library to the Library of Congress allowed the new library to “become the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US, and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country.”

Today marks the beginning of a new effort at “the choicest collection” of material in the form of the Digital Public Library of America. The conversation began two and a half years ago, when forty-two American libraries discussed where their future lay in the digital world. The answer to their question: a digital public library, national in scope and delivering open content. DPLA solves an issue with digital archives, libraries, and museums by bringing them all together and facilitating the discovery of images, photographs, artwork, and published and unpublished material. The mission, as described by DPLA, is to bring together “the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world” and “expand this crucial realm of openly available materials, and make those riches more easily discovered and more widely usable and used.”

DPLA not only makes available the material, but becomes an advocate for the open access of material. DPLA contains around 2 million documents so far from collections at the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the New York Public Library, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, as well as regional libraries like the Mountain West Digital Library and the Minnesota Digital Library. DPLA brings this material together in an interface that makes discovery easy.

I’ve been playing with DPLA all morning, and there are three areas of DPLA I’m thinking about today:


Without a doubt, access to material in DPLA presents a wonderful pedagogical opportunity. Material that could have been difficult to access or unknown to students now has the ability to be discovered. Research projects that require working with primary sources now have another starting point for research, in addition to the tools we already use in our work. A research project on American civil rights movements might start with a keyword search on Malcolm X, which pulls in sources and metadata from collections at Yale, Utah State Historical Society, the University of Illinois-Urbana, and elsewhere.

Search terms can also be explored spatially by narrowing on the location or viewed on a timeline for chronological exploration.

Discovery doesn’t have to be serendipitous either. Courses on the history of civil rights, women, and Native America, for example, can consult exhibits already built within DPLA. Exhibits contain narratives about thematic historical moments and pull in primary source material related to the themes.


DPLA has already been giving a place in my bookmark folder that contains my go-to places for research, alongside ProQuest, Google, and JSTOR. DPLA serves a similar purpose as research databases by aggregating diverse collections together under a single interface. Scholars and students alike have a variety of methods for drilling down into the material by narrowing on categories like location, date, and repositories. Subject tags also allow me to explore other avenues and similarly-categorized material.

Already, in the short amount of time I’ve spent with the DPLA, I’ve explored some of my dissertation research into the urban history of the Santa Clara Valley and uncovered period-specific maps that I’ll find useful in understanding how urban space grew and developed over time. I look forward to spending more time with DPLA as a research tool, trying out different queries and following subject tags to see what I uncover.


I haven’t dug deeply into this yet, but DPLA provides an API for those who want to build platforms to take advantage of the DPLA’s collections. Harvard and Europeana have already built impressive apps using the API. DPLA sees itself as a platform, and developers have an opportunity to make use of the available data and explore cultural heritage collections. DPLA itself is open source, and has placed all of its code on Github already.

There’s a lot of promise behind DPLA already in the early stages of aggregating our digitized cultural heritage collections, promoting public engagement, pooling metadata, and supporting methods for accessing the material. I’m looking forward to seeing more and more collections brought into the fold and broadening our ability browse, read, and create.

28 April 2013 · @jaheppler