As a former academic and general lover of the written word, I was stunned and terribly excited to read an article in the latest New York Review of Books (vol. LX, no. 7) that the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) would be launching its website today (04/18/13) at noon. For those of you who’ve never heard of this and have no idea why it’s so cool, let me explain. Here is the DLPA’s own mission statement and description, taken from the DPLA wiki:
The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all. The DPLA’s primary focus is on making available materials from the United States. By adhering to the fundamental principle of free and universal access to knowledge, it will promote education in the broadest sense of the term. That is, it will function as an online library for students of all ages, from grades K-12 to postdoctoral researchers and anyone seeking self-instruction; it will be a deep resource for community colleges, vocational schools, colleges, universities, and adult education programs; it will supplement the services of public libraries in every corner of the country; and it will satisfy other needs as well—the need for data related to employment, for practical information of all kinds, and for enrichment in the use of leisure.
Basically, it’s what Google Book Search could have been, if it had remained a free program open to all. However, in an article printed in the NYRB, Robert Darnton, a member of the board of directors, writes that
The DPLA was not designed to replace Google Book Search; in fact, the designing had begun long before the court’s decision [to strike down Google's earlier settlement with copyright holders]. But the DPLA took inspiration from Google’s bold attempt to digitize entire libraries, and it still hopes to win Google over as an ally in working for the public good.
Darnton also states that this idea is largely utopian in nature: free access to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world to what could be the largest aggregate of manuscript and digitized print materials in the world. Sounds like utopia to me. But things like this only work if enough people and enough organizations with digital manuscript libraries join. The list of current partners, which includes Harvard, the New York Public Library, and the Smithsonian, is impressive. Now of course, not all of the holdings of these libraries and museums will be made available, at least not at launch. But the Board has high hopes, global hopes. The biggest challenge will be for schools to figure out how to make the best use of this wealth of material, and I sincerely hope they figure that out soon.