Since the 1990s, in the early days of internet and the final demise of the floppy disk, new notions of knowledge have been hashed out on a global stage. With the dial-up sound (for those nostalgic for a slower, more complicated age, click here) came the possibility of an exchange of knowledge and interconnectivity which had never quite been achieved before. And with this possibility arose ideas of openness, of transnational sharing in virtual form which simply could not be attainable in a material shape. To name but a few of these early pioneers: the Library of Congress has been making material available on the world wide web since 1994; the Internet Archive was established in 1996 and provides, among so much more, free access to digitised collections; and the Bibliothèque nationale de France launched its digital collection in 1997. Since then many more institutions, universities and public libraries have tried their hand at the digital in wonderful and exciting projects, opening up their collections to students, researchers, teachers, and other enthusiasts across the globe.
What is emerging is a patchwork of individual schemes. Some have been grouped together under the likes of the Internet Archive or, when it comes to published books, the Google Book Library Project (although there are some digitisation issues there). But few attempts have been made to bring these projects under one large umbrella. Cue: The DPLA.
Opened in 2013, the Digital Public Library of America has attempted to do just this. It is a library of libraries. Linked up into one search engine, 8 million items are made easily available and are now only a few clicks away. Its major partners include the aforementioned Internet Archive and Library of Congress, as well as the likes of the HathiTrust and the New York Public Library, among others.
And that’s not all. As well as providing a platform that unites some of the largest digital collections available, the DPLA has approached the digital in new and innovative ways. This is where the DPLA gets most exciting. As online catalogues of archives, libraries, or even search engines become a common feature of our digital lives, the usual layout of long lists over hundreds of pages is at times limiting and, more often, simply a tad boring. The folks at the DPLA have sidestepped this with some nifty alternative search tools.
Map – Here, content is organised not according to the institution that holds it but to the geographical area it relates to. Specific geographical areas or larger themes can thus be searched and located. There is something to be said about such visualisation of search results. Suddenly, borders around towns, cities, countries dissolve; the proximity and possibility of regional exchange enriches any research. For a world history lover like myself, it offers a global perspective of a thematic concept across space and time.
Timeline – The interactive timeline offered on the DPLA website works on the same basis as the map except here the search results are visualised along a timeline. Again, this allows greater contextualisation. Such a visualisation of time in a defined space allows for the parallel nature of events to become visible. Years thus become layered, and the people studied become members of a non-linear world with multiple events, movements, and actions occurring all at the same time.
Bookshelf – Any bibliophile will appreciate this search tool. A keyword search recreates a thematic bookshelf, offering the virtual experience of perusing through a shelf at the local library. This includes rather endearing features such as a representation of the size and length of a book which can be judged from its spine, as well as linking every book to the DPLA image collection, adding faces to the printed words.
Finally, the DPLA has, as part of its core, an open-source development programme where individuals can enhance the DPLA’s catalogue through apps. Not all are particularly noteworthy but some are rather fun. While writing an essay, stick a paragraph into Serendip-o-matic, let the app find the key words, and voilà! An array of linked, thematic material, all available online. Culture Collage is a search tool that lets you explore the DLPA’s image archive in a streamline format, which is particularly useful for thinking about representation. Whether it be the representation of a group of society, such as women, or a specific country’s representation, for example Africa, images of different times and places are juxtaposed to give engaging readings of the material displayed.
The DPLA, being a rather young institution, still has space for growth. Its concentration around the history of the US is restrictive for historians of the extra-American world, although a substantial amount of material is still available. Perhaps in the coming years we will see a chain reaction with other leading institutions collaborating on such a scale. And, hopefully, this will be done with the continued fostering of openness to knowledge, an engagement with the best digital methods available, and a desire to maximise what it offers. For me, this is the key point: it is not enough to simply make material available online. With the advent of such developments as OCR text-mining, digital humanities needs to push past simple online access and actively engage with the wider range of tools available.