You Don’t Have to Be in D.C. to Enjoy the Library of Congress

A new partnership isn’t just a boon to map lovers, but the beginning of a conceptual shift at the US library.

By William Fenton

Last week, the Library of Congress (LOC), the nation’s largest library, announced a partnership with the Digital Public Library of America, the nation’s largest digital library. The first fruits of that collaboration — 5,000 maps from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and panoramic map collections — are available immediately, with many more to come. But you don’t have to be an historian or cartographer to appreciate why this partnership is a big deal.

The Library of Congress isn’t just the nation’s de facto library, but also the largest library in the world. It’s an institution that Americans can and should celebrate and, under the leadership of Librarian Carla Hayden, the LOC has crafted an ambitious strategic plan that will greatly expand its online presence. Digitization will benefit students, educators, researchers, and all inquisitive citizens, particularly those who do not live within commuting distance of Washington D.C.

Perhaps more importantly, this announcement signals a conceptual shift at the quintessential US library: from an edifice to a network of brick-and-mortar facilities and online resources.

When she announced the partnership, Hayden described the Digital Public Library of America as a “new door through which the public can access the digital riches of the Library of Congress.” The metaphor of a doorway is an apt one: the DPLA serves as a portal to some 14 million digital materials available at more than 2,000 universities, libraries, archives, and cultural institutions. For end-users, the DPLA grants open access to resources across institutions, with transparent data policies and a public API through which developers can create their own tools.

By the same token, the DPLA also serves as a doorway between cultural institutions, through which curators, archivists, and technologists can share standards and best practices. I spoke with Dan Cohen, executive director at the DPLA, to learn more about the partnership and about how the DPLA operates as a platform for institutional collaboration.

Maps and Magnets

As a map enthusiast, I was delighted to explore the first batch of materials released by the LOC. Visitors can browse one of the earliest maps of the continental United States, a sketch of the battlefield of Gettysburg, or even a late-nineteenth-century panorama of Key West. Every item is available in a host of file sizes and formats. For example, patrons can download the Key West panorama as a tweet-worthy GIF or a poster-sized tiff.

I’m not the only one with an affinity for historical maps. Cohen explained that the two institutions wanted to launch the partnership with what he called magnet content, resources unique to the LOC but still relevant to a general public. Staff at the institutions have identified still more magnet content from five additional collections, totaling over 145,000 items. Highlights include 1850s-era daguerreotypes of Washington D.C., hundred-year-old photos of New York, color lithographs of Chicago and Boston, as well as some of the earliest photographs of American rural life.

Future materials won’t necessarily be restricted to maps and photographs. In addition to digitizing sheet music, Cohen suggested that the DPLA and LOC are eager to digitize other media. “Our goal is to make as many materials as we can openly available to the general public,” he explained. “We would love to include audiovisual material, and we’re working closely with the staff at the Library of Congress.”

As it stands, the LOC has digitized numerous materials from the New Deal-era, including interviews with former slaves and early folk-music recordings. In working with the DPLA, the LOC has shared standards and best practices that will support efforts of smaller institutions across the country.

Content and Service Hubs

The DPLA comprises two kinds of hubs. The first, content hubs, comprise major cultural institutions like HathiTrust Digital Library, the New York Public Library, and now the LOC. These libraries, museums, and archives commit to providing and maintaining digital materials and metadata.

For example, one of the earliest such partners, Harvard Library, posted medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, digital scores and libretti, and various daguerreotypes. While those resources live at Harvard, which assumes control of responsibility for those materials, digital materials are publicly available via the DPLA.

While content hubs are instrumental to populating the DPLA (Harvard Library alone has contributed nearly 18,000 items), service hubs provide a kind of on-ramp for smaller institutions. Cohen described service hubs as state-based mini DPLAs. At last check, there were nearly two dozen such mini DPLAs, including Digital Maryland (based at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the USMAI), Maine Hub (run by the Maine State Library), and Caribbean Service Hub (shared by the Digital Library of the Caribbean and the University of Florida).

As these heterogeneous titles and partnerships suggest, DPLA allows a great deal of flexibility to service hub operators, allowing collaborators to work at a state and regional level. Each hub offers a range of services related to digitization, hosting, metadata creation, enhancement, and aggregation. A local library branch, which might not own a content server or know the first thing about metadata, can work through the service hub to migrate materials online.

Many of the DPLA service hubs also support something called the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), which effectively does for images what an API does for data. That is, at service hubs with an IIIF server, DPLA can showcase materials housed at local institutions. According to Cohen, this technology promotes state- and community-based curation by allowing those institutions to seamlessly share resources through the DPLA environment.

Standards and Best Practices

There is no silver bullet when it comes to digitizing historical materials. Creating an online archive is much more complicated, costly, and labor-intensive than posting scans on a website. Archivists, curators, librarians, and technologists must make difficult judgment calls about how to capture materials, what contextual material to curate, how to deal with and identify gaps, which platforms to use, and how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of projects. Furthermore, what works for a collection of historical maps may not suffice for a social history archive of born-digital material. In developing their own standards and best practices, organizations silo efforts, curtailing the possibility of future collaboration.

The DPLA works between those organizations. Having partnered with some 2,000 archives, libraries, and historic sites, DPLA effectively negotiates with 2,000 (or more) different systems. As Cohen put it, “The great thing about standards is that there are so many of them.”

Documenting and sharing standards is as much a challenge for large institutions, like the LOC, as it is the local library branch — perhaps even more so on the account of organizational complexity. In working to harmonize different standards with the DPLA, the LOC had to share practices in much the same way small and mid-sized organizations do with state-based service hubs. This isn’t glamorous work; it’s tedious, time-consuming, and largely invisible to patrons and donors. However, normalizing standards is essential for creating open libraries.

The Library as Distributed Network

Last week’s partnership is important because it aligns the interests of two of the country’s major custodians of knowledge. If the LOC is the nation’s de facto national library, the DPLA is the nation’s digital library.

In conceiving the Digital Public Library of America, a cadre of librarians, academics, technologists, and foundation leaders sought to create an “open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources.” While many institutions have promised comprehensive bodies of online resources, the DPLA forges pathways across repositories of knowledge. It’s an ambitious undertaking, in which subtle innovations yield meaningful changes. After all, patrons rarely notice the tireless work that goes into creating, updating, and structuring metadata. Contextual information lacks the magnetism of historical maps, but, without it, patrons cannot read those maps.

There is a growing divide between those who use and inhabit the nation’s preeminent institutions and those who feel excluded from them. I for one want to see the public use libraries, visit archives, and attend talks on university campuses. Our resources cannot be public in name only if we are to recover any sense of shared civic responsibility.

Thankfully, institutions can and do reform, and I have yet to meet one professor, librarian, or archivist who doesn’t yearn to share their passion with the public. Portals like the DPLA facilitate this kind of outreach, exchange, and coalition-building, not because the Internet is itself a panacea, but because the complexity of online work demands cooperation that is generative for institutions, their staff, and their patrons.

Read more: “How the NY Public Library Crowdsources Digital Innovation


Originally published at www.pcmag.com.