The Digital Public Library Of America: Promoting Cultural Preservation

Reading is one of the most powerful things we can do to improve our lives. It increases the chance that our children will be successful in school, and it helps us avoid the pitfalls of technology. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a transformative initiative that would change how many of our fellow citizens access, share, and engage with information.

In a world of ever-evolving technological advances, the interaction of people and information, and the exchange of information between people, has been a crucial driving force behind some of those changes. Two hundred years ago, we had books. Today, we have the Internet. And in the not too distant future, the future of information will be not a library, but a digital library. Such a digital library (or “digital public library”) would be a globally accessible digital repository of cultural artifacts. For reasons that are not entirely clear, people are interested in this subject. There are a variety of factors contributing to this interest. In some cases, this interest has been generated by the perceived threat to the value of cultural artifacts. For others, this interest

Do you have fond memories of visiting your local library for a school assignment? Or killing time digging through old books, photo archives and other fascinating documents? The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) allows you to explore similar (and in some cases the same) archives online from the comfort of your own home. DPLA is a comprehensive, completely free online collection of books, photographs, manuscripts, moving images, and other high-quality content from a network of libraries, museums, archives, and institutions across the United States.

According to The Atlantic, the DPLA is the result of two years of work by 42 of the country’s leading libraries and research organizations. The website features scanned and digitized materials from content centers such as the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library, Harvard, the National Archives, the University of Virginia, and others. It also integrates content from digital libraries across the U.S., including the Georgia Digital Library, the Minnesota Digital Library and the Mountain West Digital Library, into a single point of access for users.

Integrated research tools for the public

The website ( offers many ways to explore all of this collected content, including a map where you can search the digital archive by region, a timeline where you can discover historical artifacts and images from different centuries, and an exhibit area with excerpts from books, documents, artwork, and photographs from important periods of American history. In an interview with The Atlantic, Dan Cohen, executive director of DPLA, talked about the richness of the content already on the DPLA site: We have everything from daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln… to pictures of women demonstrating for suffrage in Kentucky… we have a lot of really amazing content from the civil rights movement… we have Thomas Jefferson’s Notes of Virginia book; we have paintings by Winslow Homer. That’s a lot. According to NPR, the DPLA collection currently includes about 4 million items, books and images, but about 500,000 new items are added each month as new libraries join the DPLA network.

However, the DPLA is more than an online resource; it is also material that authors, researchers, artists and developers are free to use in their creative, academic or professional activities. As Cohan explained in an interview with The Atlantic, in addition to the DP.LA portal… We’ll have a platform for others to build on. All data is licensed under the CCo license – so it is a public domain statement. …] This means that we make all of this data freely available for people to use as they see fit. And we will have an API – a very powerful API – that external developers can use to create innovative applications based on DPLA content.

The DPLA is also committed to promoting literacy, science and cultural preservation across the country and even internationally. In a blog post introducing the DPLA, Cohan wrote that the project will advocate for strong public choice in reading and research in the 21st century by [seeking] innovative ways to provide open access to more cultural and scholarly content. In addition, NPR has found that some libraries’ participation in the DPLA data collection actually helps them preserve materials that would otherwise be obsolete. For example, the San Francisco Public Library is digitizing historical scrapbooks from the San Francisco Police Department. Many of them are full of mold, Susan Goldstein, an archivist in San Francisco, told NPR. We scan them because it’s necessary for preservation.

NPR reports that the DPLA has received attention and support from institutions and scholars, including Lincoln Mullen, a doctoral student at Brandeis University who is researching the history of religious conversion in America. Finding the documents for his study without a DPLA would be difficult, Mullen told NPR. It is difficult to know where these collections are available except by searching the lots. […] They are all scattered in so many different places.

Problems with copyrighted content

While the DPLA has been very well received by the public, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed. One of these, according to Library Journal, is how users around the world can access content that is not in the public domain. Currently, all content on the DPLA website is in the public domain, and the DPLA does not yet feel ready to engage with copyrighted content.

NPR notes that some librarians would like to see the DPLA negotiate with publishers of copyrighted content to offer e-books. According to Jim Duncan, director of the Colorado Library Consortium, the average public library user needs current content and bestsellers.

But despite the lack of contemporary editions, DPLA will undoubtedly prove to be an interesting and valuable resource for many, whether students, researchers, historians, literary scholars, or simply curious people.

Caitlin is a writer and editor for and, and for several websites, including She has a BA and MA in English Literature and aspires to be a writer of fiction and non-fiction. She enjoys teaching students to write and dancing on the weekends. Photo credit: flickr user ipohkia


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