When it was first proposed, the Digital Public Library of America—a visionary project that aims to make discoverable and accessible online the gems of local library collections nationwide—drew many questions. The most glaring question, perhaps, was, would it succeed? Approaching the first anniversary of its April 2013 launch, the project is showing every sign that it will succeed—which is exciting news for the library community, as well as for the growing number of users who can now access once-hard-to-find collections with a click or a swipe.

By every measure, the DPLA is surging. Since its launch, the number of items in the collection has jumped nearly threefold, to six million, and the number of contributing institutions has more than doubled, to around 1,200, up from 500 a year ago. On the user side, the DPLA’s engagement metrics have been “terrific,” DPLA executive director Dan Cohen says. The website has garnered nearly one million unique visitors, 10% of whom are viewing 20 pages or more at a time—a sign of extensive browsing and research.

And that is just the front end—there are also 17 apps that use the DPLA’s application programming interface (API). Cohen says the DPLA will probably have close to 10 million API calls in its first year, meaning that the vast majority of people using DPLA content are doing so without ever touching its website.

The most important question now for the DPLA may be, how will it handle success? When the idea for the project was hatched in October 2010, much of the effort involved approaching partners who could contribute content. A year after its 2013 launch, that flow has reversed: the DPLA’s staff of seven is working as fast as it can to accommodate new partners who are approaching the organization, drawn to the discoverability that the DPLA can provide to their collections.

“We’re excited by the enthusiasm for participating, and the staff is straining to keep up with the interest,” says DPLA’s John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., and president of the DPLA board of directors. “It’s a great problem to have.”


So, how has DPLA achieved such an auspicious start? With thoughtful planning and a shrewd strategy. Indeed, Cohen says, designing and creating a system that focuses on discoverability, and that harnesses the collections and efforts of its individual members (rather than, say, building a sort of digital warehouse) has been key to the DPLA’s success.

Clicking on a link in the DPLA collection resolves to a publicly viewable version of a locally held digital item, Cohen explains, with no gates and no registration required. “That’s why [our partners] see a surge of traffic when they join DPLA,” Cohen says, noting that partners have reported that visits to their digital collections went up by “50% to 100%” after they joined the organization. “We host normalized, enhanced metadata, along with thumbnail images, and we have good and unique discovery interfaces, like a virtual bookshelf, map, and timeline. But we rely on our ‘hubs’ to host the full digital object.”

Despite its successful start, Cohen says that the DPLA still has a long way to go to fulfill its core mission of bringing together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions. And the “hubs” that Cohen alludes to are the foundation of that future.

The DPLA’s Digital Hubs Program was designed to establish a national network of regional digital libraries in the U.S. that function like on-ramps to the DPLA, bringing together digitized content from across the country into “a single access point for end-users, and an open platform for developers.”

Under the DPLA model, there are two kinds of hubs. “Service hubs” are state and regional digital libraries “that aggregate information about digital objects from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural-heritage institutions within their given state or region.” They are essentially mini-DPLAs. Service hubs (such as the Digital Library of Georgia and the Empire State Digital Network) offer their partners a full menu of standardized digital services, including digitization, metadata, data aggregation, and storage services, as well as locally hosted community-outreach programs. Currently, there are service hubs in a dozen states.

“Content hubs,” on the other hand, are generally large digital libraries, museums, archives, and other repositories (such as the National Archives, the HathiTrust, and ARTstor) that maintain “one-to-one relationships” with the DPLA. As a rule, each content hub provides more than 250,000 unique metadata records that it is committed to maintaining and editing as needed, and that resolve directly to a digital resource (online texts, photographs, manuscript material, art works).

“We owe so much to our hubs, for their flexibility, willingness to work with us, and for their creativity and input,” Cohen says. “I believe that once the network is completed, we will have thousands of contributing institutions and tens of millions of items from every corner of the U.S.,” he adds, noting that the DPLA is looking to establish hubs in all 50 states over the next couple of years.

Certainly, after its first year live, there is a growing sense of excitement about the DPLA’s prospects. “The clearest thing I’ve learned during the first year of operation of the DPLA,” says Palfrey, “is how big this opportunity is to provide the reading public with a national-scale digital library.” He adds, “As every new state joins, and as every new app is developed, the network effect grows and the usefulness of the system increases. The benefits will scale exponentially over time as the system grows.”

Next Steps

Right now, the DPLA has several million dollars in public and private funding, which Cohen says can support operations well into 2015. But as with any project, funding is an issue, and the organization is soliciting additional financing for its expansion. A grant from the Gates Foundation helps train public librarians in digital skills so they can work with projects like the DPLA, for example, and last month the DPLA launched a volunteer Community Reps program to do outreach.

“Hubs have varying structures and support, ranging from single institutions that have been able to use some start-up funds to get going to intrastate networks of institutions that are able to cobble together, on their own, the [staff] needed to work within our system,” Cohen says. At a board of directors meeting in January, Emily Gore, the DPLA director for content, acknowledged that funding is a hurdle at the state level. Many of the institutions that the DPLA works with have existing funding, but she said that there are many others that are struggling to locate funding to organize a hub, even in cases where enthusiasm and interest are high.

“It takes funding and time to do this right,” Cohen says of the DPLA’s work. “We want the data we bring in to be well vetted and enhanced with elements like geocoding, since everything, including discoverability and reuse, flows from getting the metadata right,” he explains.

The murky rights situations around various digital items also present obstacles for the DPLA. Cohen says he is planning to attend a U.S. Copyright Office public roundtable March 10–11 on orphan works and mass digitization, which could have a significant impact on what the DPLA is doing—particularly when it comes to books.

At a meeting of the DPLA’s board of directors last month, Paul Courant, a board member and the university librarian and dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, said that the roundtables “should be interesting, since the Copyright Office appears to be posturing toward some sort of legislative proposal.” Cohen says he intends “to push for maximal openness and a correct balance” between rights holders and the needs of citizens to “access and use content to build knowledge and support our democracy.” He notes that the DPLA is also working with its European counterpart, Europeana, to “streamline rights a bit more” so that it’s easier for the public to find “openly available materials, and understand what can be done with them.”

And, finally, there is progress to be made on the DPLA’s ambitious goal of covering the full range of human expression. Currently, about 99% of the archive is text and images. But Cohen says the DPLA also wants more multimedia, audio, and video, as well as materials from the sciences. “And we would like to have more recent books,” he adds, while acknowledging that library e-book lending has been a thorny subject in recent years.

Could the DPLA one day offer an option for accessing recently published books? Cohen says the organization is keeping track of developments in e-books licensing, and that he has had discussions over the last year with various members of the publishing community about the DPLA. “Recently published books are part of the full range of human expression, so this is important to us,” Cohen notes.

As the DPLA moves into its second year and beyond, it will be interesting to watch the organization grow. Its success thus far augurs a bright future.

“We have the infrastructure to handle considerable traffic,” Cohen says, adding that he would “love to go up an order of magnitude” in 2014. “People are just starting to discover the riches of what we’ve brought together,” he adds. Palfrey agrees. “In its first year, with only a tiny fraction of the people and materials involved that could be involved, the usage of the materials in the DPLA makes a slam-dunk case for building it out at a national scale.”