Digital Public Library launches

Digital Public Library launches

I’ve written before (briefly) about the Digital Public Library:

This is an ambitious project to make works available for free online. It is funded partially by the US Federal government through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, although there are many private partners as well.

The DPLA went online yesterday; I wanted to wait to write about it until I’d had a chance to try it out some.

When somebody says “library” to me, I still think primarily of a place to borrow books to read. That’s what I expected here: a super-duper Project Gutenberg, where I could go in and get classic (public domain) books to read. I was particularly looking forward to obscurities that I couldn’t get other places on the web.

I have to say, at this point, I’m a little disappointed in how it met that image of mine.

I put “Tom Sawyer” into the search, and I would have expected The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective to pop up in easily downloadable links. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a lot of commentaries as well.

Instead, the first thing that appears is an image of some sort of metal plaque depicting Mark Twain.

Next came The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as text. I clicked on that, and it gave me a link to the file at

Sure, that would still get me the book…but the DPLA is serving more as a search engine in that case than a library.

I looked back at it: the picture of the medal object also took me to another site…the picture wasn’t stored at the DPLA.

Glancing through the first page of the results, none of them were the other books…they were mostly images.

I could filter for text, and I did.

There were reviews, and a reader’s guide, and a picture of a movie theatre from the 1930s (showing a movie about Tom Sawyer)…basically, ephemera rather than the books themselves.

Now, I’m a big fan of ephemera. I love looking at old things like that…playbills, fanzines, posters. It just isn’t what I expected the main focus to be in a library.

I first tried going there on my Kindle Fire with a different book…and what I got was a PDF. It wouldn’t display online on my Fire, and downloading it didn’t seem to work. That was on a different site. The file for that book is also on, which would have worked better. I wonder if they are trying to find best links, or what the process is.

There are some cool features, which indicate that the future could be much brighter.

On the home screen, you have links for Exhibitions, Map, Timeline, and Apps.

The Exhibitions are special collections. Right now, we have

  • Activism in the U.S.
  • America’s Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal
  • Boston Sports Temples
  • Bread and Roses Strike of 1912: Two Months in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that Changed Labor History
  • History of Survivance: Upper Midwest 19th Century Native American Narratives
  • Indomitable Spirits: Prohibition in the United States
  • This Land Is Your Land: Parks and Public Spaces

I’m guessing it’s not a coincidence that two of the stories have to do with Massachusetts right now, but it might be.

Activism in the U.S. brought a number of sub-topics…and a sub-topic basically got me some text and a slideshow of images. It was a bit like something you would see on many websites, although the images were unusual.

I thought the Map might be fun. Without selecting anything, I was told there were 2,064,314 results. There may be more things in the library which aren’t able to be located geographically in the USA.

I’m in California, and at the initial zoom level, there was a circle (one of 13 total) over California and a bit of Nevada showing 14K (presumably, 14,0000 files). I zoomed in (and panned with my finger), and there were 12K in California, 2K in Nevada. Zooming in didn’t change the numbers, so I tapped the 12K.

As that point, it appeared I could scroll through those 12,000 items. Tapping where it said “California”, then I could see it a bit more manageably…and then umber became 13,254. That’s oddly a mismatch…perhaps the California search includes things about California?

I next used the searchbox for the map, and searched for my town. That gave me 2 results on my Fire…but I couldn’t seem to get them to show up. On my desktop, I got twelve results…and I could see those.

I used the Timeline, and scrolled back to 1939 (an incredible year in pop culture history). They listed 11,221 items. To refine the results, you click the “Show” button (I didn’t find that entirely intuitive).

The order of most results were: image; text; moving image; sound; and physical object. There was a click for more, which added: dataset; collection; software; an interactive resource.

Interactive resource appeared to be the timeline itself, and software told me that there were zero when I got there (but one before I clicked it).

The moving images weren’t actually theatrical movies (there would be ones in the public domain from them), but short subjects, sometimes they might have been from newsreels, sometimes they were more scientific.

Clicking on Federal Theatre at the World’s Fair took me to another site, where it played on my desktop (I didn’t try that one on my Fire).

The Timeline would be a lot more interesting with actual public domain pop culture items in it…I still like it, but I’m a bit geeky about that.

Unfortunately, I have to say that’s generally going to be the appeal here. I was hoping for something that would make a lot more casually consumed media available…books, magazines, movies, radio shows, that sort of thing. Instead, at this point, I’d say this is more of academic interest. That’s still really valuable, and I hope they digitize a lot more. However, it’s a bit like a library that only has a rare books collection, and no popular titles.

I’ve written before about my hope that the Federal government might start digitizing lots of stuff in the public domain (they have tons of copies of that stuff at the Library of Congress and making it available for free in universal formats online. That may still happen…but I’m guessing it was easier to get funding for something that is more of a prestige item like this. I’m still going to hold out hopes for dime novels, though. 🙂

I was going to finish there, but I did a

search for “Tarzan”

Eleven results..three were text, and one of those was book review. The original book wasn’t there (easily obtainable legally on line), and there was an image of a Tarzan lunchbox from the Smithsonian! Again, I do think that’s cool…but not what I expected.

Go ahead and check out the DPLA…feel free to tell me and my readers what you think about it by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

2 Responses to “Digital Public Library launches”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    Doesn’t sound too interesting to me. I would like to see something that functioned as a universal digital public library that would replace all the local public libraries and would contain both public domain as well as under copyright materials.

    There are obvious business issues here, but perhaps some entity (probably in the private sector) could come up with a workable business model.

    An obvious source would be the library of congress which generally adds everything published at time of publication to their collection. Some time back great swathes of their collection was digitized (after a fashion) — as I recall they were scanning stuff onto video disks.

    Since that technology is no longer with us, I wonder if they moved the project to a more useful media? 😀

  2. Steven King (@stevejk) Says:

    So, what you’re saying that our tax dollars were used to create a Google/Bing clone? Is there anything on DPLA that can’t be done on Google or Bing?

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