Discovery of us

The newly launched Digital Public Library of America makes an ambitious and entrancing promise

Imagine the legendary Library of Alexandria in the modern internet age. To marry the two is the rather ambitious aim of the founders of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which was launched on April 18. The DPLA houses collections from some of the US's biggest libraries, including the New York Public Library. Significantly, though, it also knits together institutions like the Smithsonian to make the wealth of knowledge and history contained in America's research libraries, archives and museums available to anyone, online and for free. That includes artefacts both large and small, letters written by George Washington, daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln and a 1919 home movie of an African American baseball game, to make the experience of history more intimate and personal.

The DPLA appears committed to the utopian idea of discovery embodied by public libraries everywhere. All the data is licensed under Creative Commons, which means it is available to the public to use in whatever way they choose. The founders also plan to unveil an application programming interface (API), which would let third-party software developers come up with innovative ways to access and browse all the content.

But the DPLA is also an example of the difficulties of such an undertaking. Making a civilisation's heritage universally accessible is a complex task, not least because of copyright law, as Google discovered a few years ago, when it first embarked on its book search project. Browsing the DPLA's website reveals an absorbing collection of archival material, but it also demonstrates how much work still lies ahead for realising the project's grand vision of digitising the vast corpus of knowledge contained in the world's museums and libraries and making it universally accessible.

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