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Boston to get nation’s first digital library

A prototype of the Digital Public Library of America will launch at the Boston Public Library April 18 and 19.

“The DPLA is being created to satisfy a need,” said Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University library system. “This need is widespread and deep. It is the need to make the cultural heritage of this country available to everyone in the country and, in fact, everyone in the world.”

The DPLA will be the first public, national, online library, and has been developed over the past few years at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Darnton said.

“In practice that [need] means digitizing the contents of our research libraries, museums and archives, and then integrating them in a system whereby a user can painlessly have immediate access to all of these documents,” he said.

Boston is home to the country’s first publicly supported free municipal libraries.

“We had a long discussion as to where headquarters should be located,” Darnton said. “The truth is that the talent in computer engineering and library expertise is really very dense in greater Boston.”

Darnton said he was inspired to create the DPLA by his desire to share the intellectual wealth of the Harvard University Library with the public.

“We can’t just open the doors and let everyone in because the place would be flooded with readers,” he said. “But, modern technology makes it possible to genuinely open up our holdings and make them available to everyone.”

Michael Colford, director of library service at the BPL, said in an email that after the initial meeting to set in motion the digital library, DPLA leaders reached the decision to involve public libraries in the development process.

“Amy Ryan, President of the Boston Public Library, was asked to serve on the DPLA steering committee because of the BPL’s extensive work digitizing their collections,” Colford said.

He said the DPLA would use a network of service hubs and content hubs to access digitized collections nationwide. BPL is among the seven initial service hubs.

“Service hubs … are regional institutions that oversee statewide, or regional digital repositories, bringing together digitized collections of many different institutions,” he said. “Similarly, content hubs are institutions that have already digitized large collections and are making those collections available to the DPLA, such as the Smithsonian, Harvard and the New York Public Libraries.”

The DPLA portal will provide access to the digitized collections of all of the service hubs and content hubs in a single search, Colford said.

“Moving forward, the DPLA hopes to create apps that will allow access to these collections through individual library websites,” he said.

Jack Ammerman, associate university librarian for digital initiatives and open access at Boston University, said the DPLA would improve library-goers’ abilities to discover and access a vast amount of digital resources.

“Early efforts by libraries and museums to digitize portions of their collections have enabled users to access resources through the Internet that are otherwise difficult to access,” Ammerman said. “DPLA provides a collaborative platform to make these digital resources more easily discovered and accessed.”

He said the DPLA would yield a great deal of benefits for BU students and faculty.

“DPLA will be most helpful to BU students and faculty who are in interested in using resources that have been in special non-circulating collections in libraries and museums,” Ammerman said.

BU Libraries intend to develop a greater connection with the DPLA and its many resources in the future, Ammerman said.

“At BU, we hope to find ways of making these important collections easily discoverable and accessible by our faculty and students,” he said. “We will also look for ways of making the digital collections from the BU Libraries accessible through the DPLA.”

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