‘Library of the Future’ Gets $1-Million Boost From Humanities Endowment

The proposed Digital Public Library of America has gotten a timely $1-million vote of confidence from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The award, announced on Thursday, will “specifically support the creation of the infrastructure for a national open-access digital library,” the agency said in a written statement.

The NEH grant will help support a pilot program of DPLA “service hubs” at the state or regional level. The hubs will function as a kind of information “on ramp” to digital content coordinated and made findable by the DPLA, according to Maura Marx, director of the DPLA Secretariat, which coordinates DPLA planning. Eight working groups have been focused on specific workstreams: content and scope, legal issues, and so on.

The model sounds more federated than top-down. The hubs won’t be built from scratch; they will draw on existing institutions and digital-library projects that have emerged as state or regional anchors for online content. “We’re trying to pull together what already exists on the state level,” says Ms. Marx. Every state already has some cultural institution that has emerged as an anchor for online content, she says—the Boston Public Library, in Massachusetts, for instance, or the University of Georgia.

She also directs the Open Knowledge Commons out of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which has been the home base for the DPLA effort. Harvard’s university librarian, Robert Darnton, has publicly championed the library in op-eds and essays in such prominent venues as The New York Review of Books.

Ms. Marx says the pilot phase will kick off in September and involve five to seven state or regional hubs. Large existing collections of digitized content, such as the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and the National Archives, will also be designated “content hubs” that will share data. In addition to content, the planners want to come up with “a core menu of services that every DPLA hub will have,” Ms. Marx says. Those services would include metadata help, data storage, and community outreach.

The NEH money arrives at a critical moment for the project. After two years of conversations, meetings, plenaries, and workshops, the DPLA planners have only nine months to go before the project is scheduled to make some kind of working debut, in April 2013.

Ms. Marx has heard the growing chorus of doubt about whether the DPLA will ever get beyond the talking phase. She hopes that “this moment of shifting gears now from planning to putting concrete plans in place” will reassure the doubters.

Having a long exploratory phase was part of the plan from the onset, according to Ms. Marx. “We thought from the beginning to create a very broad-based community movement,” she says. “We weren’t just trying to get a bunch of stuff digitized.” Instead, she says, “we were looking to inspire a change in the ways that libraries and archives and historical societies could work with each other.”

Copyright has been one of the biggest concerns for DPLA planners and commentators. The pilot phase will involve only what Ms. Marx calls “green lighted” content, meaning publicly available.

In an interview, Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH, explained why his agency felt the DPLA was worth supporting. “The significance of this area of endeavor is extraordinary,” he says. Digitizing content represents “a truly remarkable step toward the democratization of knowledge,” he says. “Now DPLA isn’t the only initiative in the world, but I believe it is an important one that will play a role.”

Mr. Leach acknowledged the difficulties involved in making the DPLA a reality, particularly the challenge of how to deal with copyright. “We all realize that there are limitations to the endeavor, based on all the thorny copyright issues,” he says. “I’m confident of the people involved. I’m confident of the end goals.”

Given its financial constraints, the NEH can play only a modest role, according to Mr. Leach. “The end cost of this is going to be extraordinary, and I’m very hopeful—and they’re very confident—that this is going to be principally propelled through foundation interests,” the chairman says. The Arcadia Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are among the private groups that have already thrown monetary support behind the DPLA.

Ms. Marx says it will take time to get it right. “April will come, and there will be a first phase of the DPLA portal and site, and people will say, ‘Too bad, it’s just that,’” she says. “We look at that as Phase 1. There will be a Phase 2 and 3 and 4 and 5.”

She does not underestimate the many hurdles that the DPLA still has to clear. Not only do the planners have a lot of technical issues to sort out, they have to get many institutions to work together. Then there’s managing public expectations. As Ms. Marx says, “The hardest thing is to just be open and to not make judgments about what the thing is before it has even become something.”

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