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Digital Public Library of America Launches an Open Collection of Cultural History

By Wesley Fenlon

The DPLA's approach to democratizing its collection with a flexible API could lead to exciting uses of digital history.

Archive.org may soon have a competitor for the Internet's broadest repository of cultural history. On Thursday, a post at DP.LA announced the launch of the Digital Public Library of America, an organization that "brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world." With government and non-profit funding, the DPLA aims to collect art and writing and film and make it freely available on the web.

Photo credit: University of Kentucky

The DPLA's executive director, Dan Cohen, spoke with The Atlantic about the digital catalog's launch. From a technology perspective, it sounds like the Digital Public Library plans to do some exciting stuff with everything it archives. One example: You can sort through the archives via a map view to find materials from different states or counties or cities. An even better example, which Cohen described to The Atlantic:

"All the data will be licensed under CC0 -- that's really a public domain declaration. It means that we're giving away all this data for free for people to use in whatever way they want. And we will have an API -- a very powerful API -- that third-party developers will be able to use to create innovative apps based on the contents of the DPLA. So if you're a developer of a mobile app, maybe one for a local walking tour of a city, you can take the material you already have and mix it up with all the great content from the DPLA for that particular location."

Some of the content in the library comes from sources you've probably heard of, like the Smithsonian, Harvard, and the National Archives. Cohen said the Smithsonian had already contributed over 800,000 items to the digital collection. But a lot of what they're getting comes from places that most of us would never find on our own, even though it's available online. Cohen said they're working with "about 42 state and regional digital libraries, things like the Digital Library of Georgia, Minnesota Digital Library, and Mountain West Digital Library, which covers Utah and parts of states right nearby. And those digital libraries, which I think are a little bit under the radar, are actually already doing an amazing job collecting digitized content from very small historic sites -- libraries, archives, and museums -- in their particular state or region."

Here's one of the 4000 or so moving images the Digital Public Library of America has collected so far--it's called The Communication Revolution, which seems like a fitting topic. The short discussion film includes famous scholar Marshall McLuhan talking about differences between forms of media.