December 13, 2013

An update on the Digital Public Library of America


dpla-logo_0This week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard writes about how the Digital Public Library of America has been doing since its launch seven months ago. One highlight is that it has attracted a lot of major donors, including the Gates Foundation and the NEA. The DPLA has also helped connect users to smaller more local and regional institutions like the Minnesota Digital Library and the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, who have seen a substantial increase in traffic.

Relying on many partner institutions, the library shuns what Dan Cohen, its executive director, calls an “imperial” model. It’s not meant to be a virtual equivalent of, say, the Library of Congress, a central storehouse for collections of images and texts. It’s not in the business of preservation. Instead the new digital library acts as a connector or superaggregator. It takes in millions of records of items held by libraries, museums, historical societies, and other cultural institutions across the country—more than 1,100 so far. Then it standardizes­ the records’ metadata and uses it to point searchers toward items relevant to their interests.

The HathiTrust Digital Library, a “partnership of academic & research institutions” has contributed the most to the DPLA since it became a partner in June. The Smithsonian is another top partner.

An Ebook tool that was created by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that launched in October has gotten glowing reviews from users. When a user searches for a topic, the results are displayed vertically like a stack of books.

The width of the book represents the actual height of the physical book, and its thickness represents its page count. The spine is colored with one of ten depths of blue to “heatmap” how relevant the work is to the reader’s search.

But there’s a lot of room for improvement. The Gates Foundation grant in particular is being used to help public librarians receive training to understand how to use the DPLA. Cohen hopes to add more cultural institution partners and increase the traffic on the website.

In order for the DPLA to have more recent books and audiovisual material available they still need to resolve how to handle copyright issues, which have been a source of debate since the beginning.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.