Press: “Inside the Quest to Put the World’s Libraries Online”

Posted by Christina Powers on July 26, 2012 in Press.

“While ambitious, the project was not unprecedented. The creation of a large-scale digital library catering to public access has been attempted for decades, by a cast of characters worth noting. Aside from Google, there’s the Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library based in San Francisco that sees itself as a bulwark against a modern-day version of the loss of the Library of Alexandria. Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive in 1996 and is now on the DPLA steering committee, aims to supplement this digital reserve with a physical copy of every book in existence, collected and stored in a mammoth warehouse in California; he currently has about 500,000 volumes and hopes to reach 10 million one day. His efforts are complemented by the HathiTrust (‘Hathi’ is the Hindi word for ‘elephant,’ an animal that, as the saying goes, never forgets), a digital preservation repository founded in 2008 that has digitized over 10 million volumes contributed by participating research institutions and libraries. The 3 billion-plus pages amount to over 8,000 tons (but weigh close to nothing online, of course). Meanwhile, national institutions like the Library of Congress have been digitizing their in-house materials for years. The DPLA is not the first player to step onto the field.

“The DPLA is the most ambitious entrant on the digital library scene precisely because it claims to recognize this need for scale, and to be marshaling its resources and preparing its infrastructure accordingly. With hundreds of librarians, technologists, and academics attending its meetings (and over a thousand people on its email listserv), the DPLA has performed the singular feat of convening into one room the best minds in digital and library sciences. It has endorsement: The Smithsonian Institution, National Archives, Library of Congress, and Council on Library and Information Resources are just some of the big names on board. It has funding: The Sloan Foundation put up hundreds of thousands of dollars in support. It has pedigree: The decorated historian Darnton has the pages of major publications at his disposal; Palfrey is widely known for his scholarship on intellectual property and the Internet; the staging of the first meeting on Harvard’s hallowed campus is not insignificant. Ideally, the consolidation of resources—specialized expertise, raw manpower, institutional backing and funding—means that the DPLA can expand its clout within the community, attract better financial support, and direct large-scale digitization projects to move toward a national resource of unparalleled scope and functionality. ‘We believe that no one entity—not the Library of Congress, not Harvard, not the local public library—could create this system on its own,’ Palfrey says. ‘We believe strongly that by working together, we will build something greater.’

“Consider how you usually come across digitized materials on the web: Haphazardly, likely with the help of a search engine, without much of a sense for what repositories have made a particular text or image available in the first place, or how best to find similar materials in the future. The DPLA—by taking up the mantle of ‘national library,’ of a command center for the country’s published heritage—would put its users high above street level, offering easier and more systematic navigation. The DPLA does not plan to supplant or swallow up the institutions already contributing to the digital cause, Palfrey emphasizes. These groups have been building their own digital collections on a scale that befits their resources, leaving the DPLA to hone its responsibility into one of supporting, managing, and organizing—rather than of generating all the raw material. ‘We want to build infrastructure that will support public and academic libraries,’ Palfrey says. ‘We’re not building the end-all, be-all digital library.’ The DPLA’s humility in this area may be its very ingenuity: It is happily indebted to the rich, if perhaps messy, constellation of digitized materials that already exist.”

From Esther Yi’s article in The Atlantic, Inside the Quest to Put the World’s Libraries Online

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