Last Sunday the Ideas section included several articles about the qualities that make cities great, and how those qualities--like trust and openness--are tested by events like the Marathon bombing. In that light, maybe it's appropriate that in the midst of last week's chaos, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which promises to make the world's books free and accessible to all, went live.
Two years ago Ideas ran an interview with Robert Darnton, director of Harvard University's library system, and the person who conceived the idea of the DPLA. Darnton explained in that interview that he was inspired to create the DPLA in response to the tremendous progress Google Books was making towards digitizing all the world's books. While he appreciated what Google Books was doing, he worried that having such a trove of information monopolized by a for-profit company ultimately did not serve the public good. And so he set out to create an alternative--a digital public library that would bring together digital content, including books, documents, audio clips, and photographs, from public libraries around the country.
The idea proved to be irresistible. The DPLA quickly attracted support from foundations and partner libraries like the National Archives and the New York Public Library. It took just two-and-a-half years for Darnton's idea to become a reality, and last Thursday the DPLA officially opened it's Internet doors to the world. (The launch of the DPLA was to have been inaugurated with a party last week at the Boston Public Library that was canceled on account of the bombing and is being rescheduled for this fall.)
As a user, approaching the DPLA can seem daunting: Where do you start among so much content, especially when you can't get even a rough physical sense of what's there? There are any number of different ways. You can look at the DPLA's "Exhibitions," which pull content into themes (current exhibitions include Boston Sports Temples and Prohibition in the United States). Or use the Library Observatory app to browse the different collections under the DPLA umbrella. Or, you can just begin searching. I began by typing in "Western irrigation" on account of the novel Angle of Repose which I've been reading. The DPLA came back with 78 results, including a report from the 1890 census on "Agriculture by irrigation in the Western Part of the United States," a handbook for arid agriculture, and a historical text on the Mormon role in irrigation.
The possibilities would seem to be exciting. You can enter the library here.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.