A group of private individuals has apparently done what the government and Google have not been able to do: establish a national digital public library. Aptly named the Digital Public Library of America , or DPLA for for short, this library aims to become the national archive of content that is currently tucked away in libraries, museums, and universities around the country, accessible only to those patrons with the means to go to the physical location and who have the permission to access the contents.
First, what’s the hold up? This concept of a full catalog of digital content is almost as old as widespread digital publishing. Leaders have been meeting and discussing the need for an easily accessible, easily searchable archive of information since the 1990s. And more importantly, didn’t Google just try something just as vital and just as noble?
In both instances, a lot of the obstacles come down to money and copyright, more so that last one, as Google found out in a lengthy court battle. Google Book Search was stalled while publishers and copyright holders battled against having their material accessible by the public for free, so a settlement was finally reached but ultimately thrown out by the court in which libraries had to subscribe to the database of information in order for their patrons to access the nearly 30 million titles that Google has already digitized.
The financial needs of a task this large are fortunately something that the DPLA leadership have addressed from the very beginning, causing them to formulate a structure in which the DPLA is more of an ongoing project rather than a race to the finish line of digitization of content. It will start with the major collections of some of the largest libraries and archives in the country, focusing first on the content that has already been made available digitally. Then, the focus will be outreach to libraries and colleges in order to encourage them to contribute to the digital library. Already the New York Public Library, Smithsonian Institution, even the Underground Public Library of New York have contributed a wealth of material to the project.
From a practical standpoint, this is such an obvious move that it is a wonder that it hasn’t happened sooner. Creating this collection and making it available to the nation stands to enhance higher education and renew an interest in our historical documents. From a more dystopian, end-of-the-world possibility, the DPLA is in line to become the largest backup copy of every printed piece of our history.
The DPLA launches on April 18th with the first phase of its collection, and can be accessed at dp.la.