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It’s Time for a National Digital Public Library

November 21, 2011

By Susan Hildreth
Director, IMLS

The vision of a national digital library has been circulating among librarians, scholars, educators, and private industry representatives since the early 1990s. But no project has yet succeeded in bringing these different interests together. The time is right to launch an ambitious project to realize the great promise of the Internet for the advancement of sharing information and using technology to enable new knowledge and discoveries in the United States and globally.

I have just returned from the exciting and inspirational conference "Creating a Blueprint for Building National Digital Public Library."  Held at the a Los Angeles Public Library's (LAPL)  grand Central Library, this was an opportunity for public libraries to become engaged in the creation  of the "Digital Public Library of America" (DPLA). This symposium was spearheaded by Martin Gomez, LAPL City Librarian, and was supported by IMLS, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, OCLC, and the LAPL Library Foundation. The DPLA represents the work of many institutions in digitizing a tremendous variety of content and envisions a future where this content and much more is freely available in all libraries and easily discoverable by all. Although public libraries have been involved in the DPLA since its inception, much of the digital content is held by academic libraries. Some public libraries, such as the New York, Boston, and Los Angeles public libraries, have rich content, but most are still challenged in developing their digital content strategies in the midst of financial limitations and just keeping their doors open.

The DPLA planning initiative grew out of an October 2010 meeting that brought together over 40 representatives from foundations, research institutions, cultural organizations, government, and libraries to discuss best approaches to building a national digital library. In December 2010, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, convened leading experts in libraries, technology, law, and education to begin work on this challenge. A two-year process of intense grassroots community organization will result in a detailed work plan for launching the DPLA, as well as the unveiling of a prototype of the system with specially digitized materials.

This “proof of concept” phase was launched in October 2011 at the first DPLA plenary session hosted by the National Archives. Featured at the plenary were “beta sprint” projects - ideas, models, prototypes, technical tools, and user interfaces that demonstrate how the DPLA might index and provide access to a wide range of broadly distributed content. All these exciting projects were developed in open source code and accessible programming so that they could be shared with all interested content owners. The DPLA has organized working groups on content, legal issues, governance, business models, technology, and other important aspects to shape the actual structure of this effort.

Federal agencies are well represented in this project. It is exciting to see the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian working together to share their rich content. IMLS speaks for the many libraries and museums across the country that also have much unique content. A hallmark of the DPLA is that these wonderful resources will be free to all users!

The LAPL conference resulted in as many questions as answers, but that is very fruitful at this point in the process. Collaboration, sustainability, technology, and content scope were key priorities for further discussion. One of the most critical issues for public libraries currently is providing access to e-books for their customers. A sustainable business model for publishers in providing library distribution as well as challenging copyright issues will also be addressed.

IMLS will continue to participate and support the DPLA initiative as it strives to provide access to the digitized content that will create knowledge for the 21st century. Please check out the DPLA at