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More than Building a Product, Process, or Portal

By Rachel Frick

Earlier this week Dan Cohen, of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, wrote a thoughtful piece about the third Digital Library of America (DPLA) Plenary Meeting on his blog, the Digital Public Library of America: Coming Together. He notes, among other things, that DPLA is more than a technical solution:

It is critical to underline this point: the DPLA will be much more than its technical infrastructure. It will succeed or fail not on its web services but on its ability to connect with localities across the United States and have them use—and contribute—to the DPLA.

It is one of the biggest challenges for the April 2013 launch of the DPLA: How to develop a service, based on an open platform and populated with rich content, that demonstrates the promise and potential of the DPLA, while communicating that the product is not the goal—that the ultimate promise of the DPLA is the sustainability and robustness of the community that supports it?

Some might look at DPLA and say “we have enough stuff, this is just more of the same. There is nothing new here.” But that is not the case. The killer aspect of the DPLA is community. The success of the DPLA is tied not only to technical infrastructure or the use of the platform and content, but to the strength of the community that contributes to the code and carries the conversation.

In his book, Expect More, David Lankes writes that “the mission of a library is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in the community.” In a recent talk, he stated:

Our buildings matter. Our services matter. But they don’t matter on their own, and we do not determine their value—that is a job for the community. It is only in the advancement of those we serve that we find our impact. It is only in the potential realized that we can measure our contribution. Our buildings, our books, our services, our catalogs must not be channels of assistance we provide, but part of a powerful platform that enables our communities to succeed. This platform is our infrastructure, but it is also the infrastructure of the community – co-owned. (

Although he is focusing on our brick and mortar libraries, these ideas resonate with the current development work surrounding the DPLA. The DPLA strives to be much more than a technical platform and deep resource of digital content. It strives to be a platform for social innovation of, by, and for the greater library, archive, museum communities and the communities they serve.

The work underlying DPLA’s Digital Hubs Pilot illustrates this concept. On the surface, the pilot reads as a basic aggregation of cultural heritage content projects, but on further inspection, the richness and complexity of this project emerges. It builds on research and practice in the digital library community—sharable metadata, scanning standards, and outreach. By framing these aspects in a national context and at an enterprise scale, there is the potential to overcome previous roadblocks and push ahead.

The pilot project creates the opportunity to revisit challenges that stalled previous national digital library efforts, such as creating a data model that leverages collection-level metadata in relation to item-level metadata, metadata enrichment services, aggregation protocols beyond OAI-PMH, and capacity for linked data. The pilot also exposes the outreach and communication challenges involved with large-scale collaborations and data sharing. One of strengths of the Digital Hubs Pilot is the ability to show the diversity of content, organizations, and business models that exist, as well as the work that has been accomplished and can now be amplified when networked toward a national effort. Another strength is connecting local stories to a national context.

At the recent plenary, Katrina Fenlon, a PhD student at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Center for Information Research in Science and Scholarship, shared the results of a national survey of reference librarians aimed at evaluating the Opening History resource. Respondents, who represented diverse academic and public libraries, cited local history—including local history that relates to non-local subjects—as being the topic of greatest public interest. The Digital Hubs Pilot will link collections that help answer questions such as “How did my town participate in the Civil War”? More importantly, though, the pilot will facilitate a greater understanding of these events and start new conversations.

Although there are seven formal partners in the Digital Hubs Pilot, there are many opportunities for members of the greater digital library community to contribute. There will be an open comment period for the DPLA data provider agreement and the data model. An Appfest will be held in Chattanooga early in November and will provide an opportunity to hack the DPLA API and test set of content. More open conversation events and hackathons are planned for the months ahead.

Not all of the conversations at DPLA workshops and plenaries have focused on the DPLA code and collections. Because of issues like copyright, there is a point in the collection development conversation when we move from “How do we collect?” to “How can advocate?” As we determine which pools of content are not readily available for reasons other than technical, we hope the DPLA can transform from a platform for access to one of advocacy.

The DPLA is not just a platform for technical innovation, discovery, and sharing of content. It is also, a platform for education and advocacy about issues like open access, copyright issues, and e-books in libraries.

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