The Digital Public Library of America launches today, having gone from concept to concrete more swiftly than anyone could have hoped. As has been envisioned from the beginning, the DPLA is “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that draws on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” The DPLA begins with an already-impressive array of materials, but has even bolder ambitions, along with an encouraging concern with sustainability.
No individual has been as important to the DPLA’s trajectory as Harvard’s University Librarian (and many-time HUP author) Robert Darnton, who has tracked the project’s progress in a series of articles for the New York Review of Books. In his most recent, he recaps the initiative’s brief history and explains its intentions:
How to think of it? Not as a great edifice topped with a dome and standing on a gigantic database. The DPLA will be a distributed system of electronic content that will make the holdings of public and research libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies available, effortlessly and free of charge, to readers located at every connecting point of the Web. To make it work, we must think big and begin small. At first, the DPLA’s offering will be limited to a rich variety of collections—books, manuscripts, and works of art—that have already been digitized in cultural institutions throughout the country. Around this core it will grow, gradually accumulating material of all kinds until it will function as a national digital library.
Darnton goes on to detail a DPLA-affiliated project that is particularly exciting for us here at the Press:
At one time or other, nearly every student comes in contact with a poem by Emily Dickinson, who probably qualifies as America’s favorite poet. But Dickinson’s poems are especially problematic. Only a few of them, horribly mangled, were published in her lifetime.
As Darnton notes, the manuscript copies of Dickinson’s poems “pose important puzzles, because they contain quirky punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and other touches that have profound implications for their meaning.” The originals, which are held in a few invaluable collections—notably at Amherst College Library, the Boston Public Library, and Harvard’s Houghton Library—have now been digitized and combined with printed editions edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955 and by Ralph W. Franklin in 1981, both of which are jewels of HUP’s own catalog. The manuscripts and printed poems will be brought together with a wealth of other supplementary documentation to create an Emily Dickinson Archive. Brigham Young University has also partnered with Amherst College, the BPL, Harvard, HUP, and the DPLA in this project that will greatly expand access to our collective knowledge of one of the country’s great literary icons while also inspiring new scholarship and discourse on her life and work.
The Copley branch of the BPL—the first large free municipal library in the United States—was to host a gala launch for the DPLA today. The Copley library is now at the center of a crime scene, though, directly beside the terrible and tragic Boston Marathon explosions, and so today’s events have been cancelled. In his statement on the cancellation, DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen called the building of a new library “one of the greatest examples of what humans can do together to extend the light against darkness,” and the site’s launch will proceed today as planned. An even larger event to properly celebrate the creation of the DPLA is now in the works for this fall.