National Digital Public Library of America

It looks like Harvard is going to stand out from the rest of the Massachusetts colleges in yet another way.  Last month, the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society announced that The Sloan Foundation and Arcadia Fund would donate $5 million to develop the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

The DPLA is a national project to provide access to digital content from libraries, museums, and archives in the United States.  The project began in 2010, but only recently gained serious momentum with the generous funding contributions.

The DPLA would essentially create a unified repository for all the digital collections of libraries, museums, archives, and anyone else that had digital content of value that they wanted to share with the public.  There would be standards for adding data to the repository as well as for accessing data from it.  The repository would be secure, redundant, and scalable.

Local libraries and museums currently have an amazing wealth of digital content stored within their own local systems that are operated by their own staff and use their own methods for storing and accessing the data.  Many libraries and museums have massive content that they would love to digitize but lack the database storage facilities to go through with converting their content.

The libraries that do digitize their content typically only offer their content through their website or through their local computers.  If someone wanted to find digital content on The Civil War they would currently have to search every single library, museum, and digital archive website in the United States.  Sure, you could find a lot using your favorite search engine, but you would be missing out on massive digital collections stored throughout the country.

If the DPLA came to fruition, you could just go to one place and be able to access every single digital collection in the United States.  More importantly, a local library in a small suburban city would be able to leverage the massive digital budgets and collections of every single library, museum, and archive in the United States.

The DPLA would free up considerable technical budgets and resources of local libraries as well.  It’s incredibly inefficient for local libraries to maintain their own servers, software, and staff when you can have one organization that is entirely specialized in providing those services.  At the same time, the DPLA would be far better equipped to handle issues of security, redundancy, and scalability than a local library branch.

A national digital library makes a lot of sense.  It’s surprising that a private university has to be the one to try to tackle the enormous challenge of making it a reality.  There are considerable barriers that need to be dealt with before the DPLA could exist.  The biggest issue by far is determining what can legally be digitized and stored in the repository.  Copyright issues can present significant challenges for digital content.  For example, are you allowed to digitize really cool photographs taken during World War II that have no photographer listed?  Political issues present substantial barriers as well.  Getting approval to get federal funding for just about anything in our current economic climate is virtually impossible.  Perhaps this obstacle could be overcome since the DPLA would actually save money by getting rid of a chunk of technology spending from pretty much every library, museum, and archive.

It seems strange that the United States doesn’t have a national digital library already.  We lead the world in so many other areas, yet we are completely fragmented in the storing of our digital culture and history.  Many other countries already have national digital libraries.  The European Union has a pretty impressive digital repository called Europeana.  Take a few moments to browse that site and you can start to visualize what our national digital library would look like.

The DPLA would be a way to store the entire cultural heritage and history of our country in one place.  It would make digital scans of historical documents, artwork, and photos accessible to everyone.  It would be compatible with Europeana’s standards too.  So it would essentially allow access to all digital collections in the United States and Europe all through one interface.  That would be truly amazing.