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See something new today with the Digital Public Library of America

The Digital Public Library of America is an extraordinary new resource worth checking out immediately, especially if you have some free time to spare. It took me some time to realize the potential of this platform, so I offer this post as a brief explanation of some of the features as well as a reflection on the importance of the project.

Stack Life App

Screen shot of Stack Life search. The Stack Life app was developed by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab.

The platform, which launched in April of this year, grants free access to the metadata of millions of objects held in the collections of America’s libraries, archives, and museums. In other words, the DPLA is not a digital repository. It is more like a digital catalog that connects users with repositories. According to the website, this free service aims to “contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science.” Planning for this ambitious project began in October 2010 and involved experts in libraries, technology, law, and education.

I have structured this post according to the three main elements of the online platform, as described on the DPLA website:

1. A portal that delivers students, teachers, scholars, and the public to incredible resources, wherever they may be in America. Far more than a search engine, the portal provides innovative ways to search and scan through the united collection of millions of items, including by timeline, map, format, and topic.

2. A platform that enables new and transformative uses of our digitized cultural heritage. With an application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, the DPLA can be used by software developers, researchers, and others to create novel environments for learning, tools for discovery, and engaging apps.

3. An advocate for a strong public option in the twenty-first century. For most of American history, the ability to access materials for free through public libraries has been a central part of our culture, producing generations of avid readers and a knowledgeable, engaged citizenry. The DPLA works, along with like-minded organizations and individuals, to ensure that this critical, open intellectual landscape remains vibrant and broad in the face of increasingly restrictive digital options. The DPLA seeks to multiply openly accessible materials to strengthen the public option that libraries represent in their communities.


I want to highlight the second sentence in the first element: “Far more than a search engine, the portal provides innovative ways to search and scan through the united collection of millions of items, including by timeline, map, format, and topic.”

The designers of the DPLA created a stunning digital springboard which facilitates exploration of digital documents, maps, artifacts, and art. With a clear agenda, one can easily perform a standard search on the main page. But to me, the more exciting options are to “explore by place” and “explore by date.” The visual presentation of the metadata is aesthetically satisfying and easy to navigate. And since the DPLA brings together the collections of state and regional digital libraries (which themselves aggregate the metadata of local historical society, museum, and library collections), you are sure to find something that piques your interest.

In an article for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Maura Marx, Director of the DPLA Secretariat, explains:

“The DPLA’s goal is to bring the entire nation’s rich cultural collections off the shelves and into the innovative environment of the Internet for people to discover, download, remix, reuse and build on in ways we haven’t yet begun to imagine…Regular users can search in the traditional way using the portal, and developers and innovators can build on big chunks of code and content using the platform—we’re creating access, not controlling it.”

The potential for developers and innovators to work with the metadata provided by the DPLA brings us to element number 2: A platform that enables new and transformative uses of our digitized cultural heritage. With an application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, the DPLA can be used by software developers, researchers, and others to create novel environments for learning, tools for discovery, and engaging apps.

So far there are seven apps created by independent users or groups for the DPLA. These are accessible through the app library. I found Stack Life and Culture Collage to be particularly interesting. Stack Life uses the metadata in the DPLA to allow users to search a superset of books from the Hathi Trust and the Open Library. The search engine returns results in the form of a vertical stack of books. The shade of the book shows how often it has been accessed- darker signifies more and lighter signifies less. The thickness of the book reflects the length in pages. The length (or really the height) of the book represents the publishing date: shorter books were published more recently than longer books. I like this app because it allows relationships to emerge that would otherwise be hidden within the individual entries of each result.

Culture Collage is more of a visual discovery tool. My favorite feature is the “lucky dip,” which generates searches based on random words. See the results for anthropophagy, for example. Now, press the reset button in the upper right hand corner and watch as a new set of images floods the screen.

Another app of note is WP DPLA, which was developed in response to THATCamp CHNM 2013 Maker Challenge. The plug-in is designed to function with WordPress, and its purpose is to match subject tags assigned by authors to four related images in the DPLA. These images appear at the bottom of the post along with image titles and repository of origin. This plug in shows the potential of the DPLA to permeate more of our everyday activities online and to inspire users on other platforms to click on and search the DPLA

Contemporary Art/Boston

Media room in the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Photo courtesy of (Steven Zucker)

One naturally wonders if increased public access to digitized resources (element number three in the DPLA description) will distance us from the physical objects that we replicate online. A comment made by Michael Colford, director of library services at the Boston Public Library, in a recent Wall Street Journal article makes me optimistic about the future of physical objects. Colford notes that the library today “is more of a platform launching you in all different directions.” It seems that in a way that the missions of physical and digital libraries are converging. This may be the case in most areas of life: the digital and the physical are coming together in a way that enhances both experiences. I’m reminded of the media room in the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, which provides digital programs for the visitors to learn more about the art on display. The room is accessed through the middle of the temporary exhibition space, so that physical engagement with art comes before and after the digital experience.

With the increased access to digitized collections provided by the DPLA, we may be more likely than ever to visit the repositories that hold these books, documents, and objects. As concluded in a study on Library Services in the Digital Age, released in January 2013 by the Pew Research Center, “many library patrons are eager to see libraries’ digital services expand, yet also feel that print books remain important in the digital age.” When we have access to more material online, we have access to material “on the ground.”

If you have used the DPLA, please leave a comment about your experience and finds!

Emily Monty is an art historian researching early modern European art. She holds a master's in art history from Tufts University and a bachelors from Bates College. She has studied museum theory and practice at the Smith College Summer Institute for Art Museum Studies. She leads tours at the Tufts University Art Gallery and has interned at the Bates College Museum of Art, the Currier Museum of Art , and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She teaches art history at a number of lifelong learning programs in the greater Boston area.

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