The Digital Public Library of America has just launched and can be found at the annoyingly unconventional URL http://dp.la. That’s the only criticism I have to make of it, the funny domain name. Otherwise it’s an impressive performance. I have just begun to browse it and expect that I will come to use it regularly. It’s a bit like Wikipedia in that respect — always present in the background when you need it and welcome for precisely that reason.
There will be endless commentary about DPLA, so my remarks here are simply to call attention to the project and to encourage people to check it out. It’s a moving target — what it is today will be significantly different in 6 months. Heaven only knows what it will look like in 5 years.
I have been watching the project since it was first conceived and I subscribed to several of the mailing lists for the working groups. There has always been a gap, at least in my opinion, between some of the lofty — and incendiary — aspirations of the project and the actual nuts-and-bolts work to get it up and running. The “information wants to be free” crowd has embraced DPLA, and that’s unfortunate. (There are many subgroups within the world of free information advocates.) But the actual service that is available right now is very useful, if limited by the current scope of its collections. I say “current scope” as though I actually knew what that scope is. Unlike in a physical library, you just can’t tell by digging into the search tool just how large DPLA is. You will not see documents that you don’t specifically request, so what you do see is the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Over time the amount of ice below the surface is no doubt going to grow beyond human measure.
The most impressive aspect of DPLA is that it is not a library at all, but an intelligently constructed catalogue to many libraries, which are contributing their collections. DPLA, in other words, is a “pointer” service, which is, I think, exactly what the world wants. So a search on DPLA fetches documents from all over the place. I was just looking at something from the holdings of the University of Illinois, then I clicked a bit and was taken to Brewster’s Kahle’s Archive.org. Ten minutes on the home page and you can “visit” many libraries. If this is not cool, I don’t know what is.
Among the particularly useful aspects of DPLA (I fear I will overlook something major here) is the list of the various file formats for the content. So, for example, you can read something online, download it as an ePub file, get a PDF, or even send it to Kindle. Now, all this stuff is a lot harder to do then simply clicking once, but that is not the fault of DPLA but of the absence of any standard way to get content onto the device of your choice. This means there will have to be a learning curve. I was playing with the “send to Kindle” function today and then got weary. I have long intended to learn how to use it, but DPLA has now given me a reason to do so now. So I will come back to it, demonstrating that DPLA is not only a source of content but also part of a self-reinforcing ecosystem. The documentation on this particular feature does not exist on DPLA, as far as I can tell, and the instructions on the Kindle site are useless. This is normal, of course; we are in the world of “learn by doing,” which takes much longer than “learn by reading,” but you can’t blame DPLA for this, though the irony of this should not be lost on anyone who is trying to use a library.
With an eye toward the future, it’s significant that DPLA is inviting developers to write new applications using the DPLA’s resources. I think it is easy to underestimate how important this is in that it can release the creative energies of a broad community. No one person can think of everything, but everyone can, one bit at a time. The precedents for this kind of activity are marvelous — the application library for Microsoft DOS, later Windows; the iPhone app store; Wikipedia; etc., etc. DPLA is, in other words, a community resource; it is the commons that grows rather than gets exhausted when it is grazed upon.
This is another way of saying that DPLA knows how the Web works. This is not trivial. By building something that is tailored to the Web’s underlying capabilities, DPLA could become a grand thing. I think it will.
What will become apparent to early users is that many items that you would expect to find in a library are not there. I looked up “Isaac Asimov” and came away empty-handed. So here is another irony, in that the geeks who did the actual coding for this project are likely to have read the robot and Foundation books when they were still nursing. But it’s not just Asimov, of course; it’s pretty much anything that is still under copyright. This will be DPLA’s biggest challenge, as there is no known economically viable way to put commercially available titles into DPLA without compromising or negating their economic value.
I have written about this before, but it bears repeating that making an ebook available nationally or even globally is bound to put downward pressure on market opportunities. Some participants in DPLA believe that this is a problem that can be solved at some future point. We shall have to wait and see. For my part I wish DPLA would simply forego the inclusion of works under copyright, but there is not a chance that the leadership of DPLA would allow the mere property interests of authors and publishers to get in the way of their grand design. So we will see arguments and many, many lawyers involved in this in the coming years.
All in all though, it’s hard not be take one’s hat off to what has been accomplished. I will be looking for a copy of Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” to read on my iPad, and I will start my search at http://dp.la.