Posted on November 18, 2013 in Archive

The DPLA is trying to make libraries impressive again


The initial concept for the Digital Public Library of America was launched in 2010 by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Since then, it has faced (and is still facing) many obstacles, both technological and critical. Considering the scale of the project and what they have accomplished in 3 years though, I don’t think they’re doing too badly.

The DPLA’s mission statement clarifies what they want to achieve – “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” And don’t even say that Google did it first, because while authors are outraged that their books might appear in full on Google Books, I’m guessing that inclusion in the DPLA is to be treated as something of an honour. They’re still working on that part, presumably.

In April of this year, the DPLA released a website that allows users to browse a plethora of material, including over two million archived books, records, images and sounds. It’s sourced from places like Harvard University, the Internet Archive and the San Francisco, Chicago and Boston public libraries. Additionally, it has the potential for crowd sourcing by allowing APIs (application programming interfaces) for those at home who wish to contribute to the library. Like Wikipedia, but with more credibility.

Ideally, through DPLA you should be able to search archives for mention of long-lost relatives, search books and geolocation data (also known as maps) for information from local or regional libraries, and use metadata to locate, say, old portraits for an artistic school essay.

The DPLA is trying a whole variety of different ways of presenting what is essentially an online library and archives hall in a modern, tech-savvy way. The DPLA App Library contains 12 applications so far that can be used to view or search for information.  My favourite, though, would have to be StackLife. Created by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, it’s a nifty little app (though still in rough stages) that displays data available to the DPLA and presents it as a visually attractive, vertically stacked bookshelf with accompanying information. The shade of blue assigned to the book spine reflects how much the book has been accessed – for example, on the StackLife homepage, ‘The Congressional cook book’ is a dark navy, indicating popularity, while ‘The origins of the synagogue and the church’ by H.G. Enelow is a lovely robin egg blue, which indicates… well, let’s say that it’s probably a specialised topic that not many would actively search for. It also displays the thickness to reflect the page numbers and lengthens the book spine to show how long ago the book was published. Honestly, you should check it out – though it’s still slightly buggy and missing some information, it’s a treat to look at.

Liquid State - DPLA

From this visual representation, we can tell that cookbooks are long, Thomas Jefferson books are old, and people aren’t reading books about synagogues.

I can see problems and potential criticism with this project, however. Local public libraries are struggling enough these days without a hypothetical behemoth such as the DPLA moving in on their territory and presenting a better well-rounded catalogue of material. Are they trying to kill off public libraries, when their aim is to be supplemented by them? Local government could easily argue that funding for local libraries should be slashed if there is a comprehensive digital public library available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Also, if people are looking for an online version of an old or free book, why wouldn’t they just check out Project Gutenberg, which they know works? An online public library isn’t a new concept. The DPLA needs to make sure it can offer something different or better than it’s competitors and predecessors. Currently, they are trying to get together with Google to combine Google Book’s commercially viable library with DPLA’s catalogue in order to offer readers books that aren’t solely available under Creative Commons (or because the author has been dead for so long that no-one would object if the book is digitised). Though with Google’s recent legal ruling, that might no longer be an option.

Duplicates within the system is another problem they face – this article details some of the current troubles of DPLA, amongst them being two caches of data describing the exact same book differently, which therefore leads to two separate pages for the same article. This means that people, not computers, are what will be needed to fix this problem by trawling through the site to fix or merge duplicate pages.

So like I said, there are more than a few problems faced by the DPLA before they can call the project a rousing success. Ultimately though, I feel it’s a great example of how digital technology can help bring people together with more archived and published material. If DPLA can work past the issues facing it, then I think that it has the potential to be a fantastic resource for the U.S.A., or even the whole world.