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Groundbreaking Online Library Intrigues Educators

Digital Public Library of America gives researchers access to collections that previously would have required visiting another university, lets librarians augment their schools' education.

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The launch of the Digital Public Library of America earlier this month creates new opportunities for schools to educate students, without a major technology upgrade.

Almost three years in the making, the DPLA, the U.S.'s first public online-only library, allows free access to collections from university libraries, archives and museums. Previously, such collections could not be seen without going to the library that held them. The DPLA changes that, benefitting librarians -- but it also has special potential for educators.

The DPLA gives librarians an open platform, with tools that in principle will let them curate materials to help students in classrooms. For universities, the DPLA will help "scholarship will go faster," said Mary Molinaro, associate dean for library technologies at the University of Kentucky. She's been involved in a 15-year project to bring the UK library online, as manager of the Kentucky Digital Library. The UK library is one of the service hubs, or content aggregators, for the DPLA. Among other things, it will save researchers from having to fund trips to see materials that are in a specific place. A medieval researcher told her that many of the manuscripts he studies are now available online, meaning he had much quicker access to things he needed for his research, she said.

[ Massive online open courses are complementing the traditional college education. Read MOOCs Are Here To Stay, Profs Say. ]

Molinaro believes the DPLA will improve education by allowing librarians to do things like geotagging maps so people can see what was written in a place, the newspapers it had, and whether there were oral histories taken of people in an area. "Those are the kinds of things [you'll get] as you look at collections across the country, with open data coming together in a way will be magical," Molinaro said.

She said that little in the new way of new technology is needed to use the DPLA, though as a service hub Kentucky does need to add storage.

The DPLA brings content online that has not previously been digitized. "A lot of this content would never be discoverable otherwise. It's in small libraries and historical societies," said Emily B. Gore, DPLA director of content, and formerly associate dean for digital scholarship and technology services at Florida State. The DPLA "would [have meant] a lot to me" in helping to bring collections online in her previous job, she said.

Gore agreed that the technology needed to use the online library's resources are minimal -- it does the hosting and the aggregating, meaning that even small libraries at schools should be able to use it.

The DPLA grew out of a project hosted at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Currently, 18 institutions partnering with the DPLA serve as content providers or service hubs that aggregate content. The largest contributors of content are the Mountain West Digital Library, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Smithsonian.

That the DPLA has its own application programming interface means libraries can create their own look around DPLA content, such as filtering for content from their own region.

Gore bills the DPLA as a way to allow easier access to data at a time when content is being put behind pay walls. "We're not going to change the fact that a student can't get access to a lot of these paid resources," she said. "[But] we are going to change the fact that you don't have to drive to the campus for special, unique collections."

She said that now the DPLA has launched, a major goal would be adding more content from many more institutions. It will also work to improve metadata usage. For instance, the South Carolina digital library project uses "upstate" to define a specific region in South Carolina. But that term will not make sense to people from New York, where upstate means some place else entirely.

Molinaro said the DPLA will soon leave those growing pains behind. "Give it another couple of years as we build this out, and people will just be blown away."

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