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What We Hope the Digital Public Library of America Will Become

Tomorrow is the official launch date for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

If you’ve been following it, you’ll know that it has the long term aim of realising “a large-scale digital public library that will make the cultural and scientific record available to all”.

More specifically, Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library and one of the DPLA’s leading advocates to date, recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, that the DPLA aims to:

make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge

What will this practically mean? How will the DPLA translate this broad mission into action? And to what extent will they be aligned with other initiatives to encourage cultural heritage institutions to open up their holdings, like our own OpenGLAM or Wikimedia’s GLAM-WIKI?

Here are a few of our thoughts on what we hope the DPLA will become.

A force for open metadata

The DPLA is initially focusing its efforts on making existing digital collections from across the US searchable and browsable from a single website.

Much like Europe’s digital library, Europeana, this will involve collecting information about works from a variety of institutions and linking to digital copies of these works that are spread across the web. A super-catalogue, if you will, that includes information about and links to copies of all the things in all the other catalogues.

Happily, we’ve already heard that the DPLA is releasing all of this data about cultural works that they will be collecting using the CC0 legal tool – meaning that anyone can use, share or build on this information without restriction.

We hope they continue to proactively encourage institutions to explicitly open up metadata about their works, and to release this as machine-readable raw data.

Back in 2007, we – along with the late Aaron Swartz – urged the Library of Congress to play a leading role in opening up information about cultural works. So we’re pleased that it looks like DPLA could take on the mantle.

But what about the digital copies themselves?

A force for an open digital public domain

The DPLA has spoken about using fair use provisions to increase access to copyrighted materials, and has even intimated that they might want to try to change or challenge the state of the law to grant further exceptions or limitations to copyright for educational or noncommercial purposes (trying to succeed where Google Books failed). All of this is highly laudable.

But what about works which have fallen out of copyright and entered the public domain?

Just as they are doing with metadata about works, we hope that the DPLA takes a principled approach to digital copies of works which have entered the public domain, encouraging institutions to publish these without legal or technical restrictions.

We hope they become proactive evangelists for a digital public domain which is open as in the Open Definition, meaning that digital copies of books, paintings, recordings, films and other artefacts are free for anyone to use and share – without restrictive clickwrap agreements, digital rights management technologies or digital watermarks to impose ownership and inhibit further use or sharing.

The Europeana Public Domain Charter, in part based on and inspired by the Public Domain Manifesto, might serve as a model here. In particular, the DPLA might take inspiration from the following sections:

What is in the Public Domain needs to remain in the Public Domain. Exclusive control over Public Domain works cannot be re-established by claiming exclusive rights in technical reproductions of the works, or by using technical and or contractual measures to limit access to technical reproductions of such works. Works that are in the Public Domain in analogue form continue to be in the Public Domain once they have been digitised.

The lawful user of a digital copy of a Public Domain work should be free to (re-) use, copy and modify the work. Public Domain status of a work guarantees the right to re-use, modify and make reproductions and this must not be limited through technical and or contractual measures. When a work has entered the Public Domain there is no longer a legal basis to impose restrictions on the use of that work.

The DPLA could create their own principles or recommendations for the digital publication of public domain works (perhaps recommending legal tools like the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark) as well as ensuring that new content that they digitise is explicitly marked as open.

Speaking at our OpenGLAM US launch last month, Emily Gore, the DPLA’s Director for Content, said that this is definitely something that they’d be thinking about over the coming months. We hope they adopt a strong and principled position in favour of openness, and help to raise awareness amongst institutions and the general public about the importance of a digital public domain which is open for everyone.

A force for collaboration around the cultural commons

Open knowledge isn’t just about stuff being able to freely move around on networks of computers and devices. It is also about people.

We think there is a significant opportunity to involve students, scholars, artists, developers, designers and the general public in the curation and re-presentation of our cultural and historical past.

Rather than just having vast pools of information about works from US collections – wouldn’t it be great if there were hand picked anthologies of works by Emerson or Dickinson curated by leading scholars? Or collections of songs or paintings relating to a specific region, chosen by knowledgable local historians who know about allusions and references that others might miss?

An ‘open by default’ approach would enable use and engagement with digital content that breathes a life into it that it might not otherwise have – from new useful and interesting websites, mobile applications or digital humanities projects, to creative remixing or screenings of out of copyright films with new live soundtracks (like Air’s magical reworking of Georges Méliès’s 1902 film Le Voyage Dans La Lune).

We hope that the DPLA takes a proactive approach to encouraging the use of the digital material that it federates, to ensure that it is as impactful and valuable to as many people as possible.

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