Harvard Library To Contribute "Crown Jewels" to Digital Public Library of America

When the Digital Public Library of America officially launches on April 18, 2013, anyone with access to a computer will be able to study and enjoy the “crown jewels” of Harvard’s Library system, which spans 73 physical libraries and approximately 17 million volumes.

The Harvard Library announced last Wednesday that it will contribute content from a number of its special collections to the DPLA, an online, not-for-profit initiative to digitize scholarly material from public and private libraries across the country.

“That, in general, is what I feel our responsibility is here at the library,” said Robert C. Darnton ’60, Harvard University librarian and one of the original visionaries behind the DPLA. “We have these great collections and now thanks to modern technology we can share our intellectual wealth.”

The announcement makes Harvard the DPLA’s first individual ‘content hub’—the term DPLA has given digital libraries with which it will work directly to acquire material. Leaders agreed that Harvard’s commitment is a big success for the endeavor.

“It is a major vote of confidence in the system,” said John G. Palfrey, Jr. ’94, President of DPLA’s Board of Directors. “What Harvard is planning to do is share some of the crown jewels of its library collections.”

Darnton cautioned against “exaggerated expectations” and emphasized that the launch will be only the “beginning” of a massive digital library. But Harvard’s special collections represent a unique contribution to the DPLA’s offerings and feature some “fabulous” content, he added. University collections that have already been digitized include a plethora of mediums, from daguerreotypes of the moon and early manuscripts of musical scores by J. S. Bach and Mozart, to field notes and diaries from naturalist Louis Agassiz and original trial records and maps from around the world.

The library has not yet finalized which of these materials will go online first, but the decision will be made in “a matter of weeks, not months,” Darnton said.

Material in the special collections is usually older and already in the public domain—a huge advantage as the DPLA continues to navigate copyright law in striving for open access to as large a collection of material as possible.

“The copyright issue is, in my opinion, the most difficult problem that the DPLA faces—and we’ve got lots of problems,” Darnton said. “It won’t be a great library if we can’t make material available from 1964, 1923. We’ve got a third possible copyright date of 1893. Imagine if we were unable to make available to the American public any book published after 1893.”

There are certain ways to work around copyright law—especially for material out of print—without hurting authors or publishers, he said. The DPLA is also exploring the fair use element of copyright law, which allows a book under copyright to be digitized depending on the purpose of its use.

The DPLA already has seven ‘service hubs’—including the Kentucky, Oregon, and South Carolina Digital Libraries, in addition to the Boston Public Library’s Digital Commonwealth Project—that aggregate content and metadata from surrounding public and private libraries. In return, said Kenny Whitebloom, a member of the DPLA secretariat, these repositories help local libraries increase digitization efforts and expose rich, but often unknown, collections.

“DPLA is seeking to connect our various digital repositories and institutions across the United States through a single outlet,” said Whitebloom. “The really amazing stuff is going to get more visibility—reignite some sort of interest in local history.”

As the DPLA looks to expand the content it will make available in April, Harvard’s involvement is especially promising because of its potential to inspire support from other universities, who often think that transferring content from existing digital databases to the DPLA is cost-prohibitive, according to Darnton.

“We have to convince them that it won’t cost anything,” he said. “The DPLA’s front-end interface has been designed in such a way to favor this.”

A number of institutions have already expressed interest following in Harvard’s footsteps, said Palfrey. “We are very hopeful that other libraries will follow suit,” he said.

The Harvard Library’s decision to support DPLA is the most recent in a number of efforts by the country’s second-largest library to promote digitization of collections and open access. After expressing concerns about Harvard’s ability to maintain journal subscriptions in tandem with rising costs from publishers, the library made 12 million bibliographic records public in April of this year. The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library also circulated an appeal to faculty in the spring, encouraging professors to publish in and patronize journals committed to free, open access.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

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