CRF Blog

A World Digital Library Is Coming True!

by Bill Hayes

In A World Digital Library Is Coming True! for the New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton reports on the progress of various projects to make content more accessible.

[T]he Digital Public Library of America, which aims to make available all the intellectual riches accumulated in American libraries, archives, and museums. As reported in these pages, the DPLA was launched on April 18, 2013.2 Now that it has celebrated its first anniversary, its collections include seven million books and other objects, three times the amount that it offered when it went online a year ago. They come from more than 1,300 institutions located in all fifty states, and they are being widely used: nearly a million distinct visitors have consulted the DPLA’s website (, and they come from nearly every country in the world (North Korea, Chad, and Western Sahara are the only exceptions).

At the time of its conception in October 2010, the DPLA was seen as an alternative to one of the most ambitious projects ever imagined for commercializing access to information: Google Book Search. Google set out to digitize millions of books in research libraries and then proposed to sell subscriptions to the resulting database. Having provided the books to Google free of charge, the libraries would then have to buy back access to them, in digital form, at a price to be determined by Google and that could escalate as disastrously as the prices of scholarly journals.

Google Book Search actually began as a search service, which made available only snippets or short passages of books. But because many of the books were covered by copyright, Google was sued by the rights holders; and after lengthy negotiations the plaintiffs and Google agreed on a settlement, which transformed the search service into a gigantic commercial library financed by subscriptions. But the settlement had to be approved by a court, and on March 22, 2011, the Southern Federal District Court of New York rejected it on the grounds that, among other things, it threatened to constitute a monopoly in restraint of trade. That decision put an end to Google’s project and cleared the way for the DPLA to offer digitized holdings — but nothing covered by copyright — to readers everywhere, free of charge.

Aside from its not-for-profit character, the DPLA differs from Google Book Search in a crucial respect: it is not a vertical organization erected on a database of its own. It is a distributed, horizontal system, which links digital collections already in the possession of the participating institutions, and it does so by means of a technological infrastructure that makes them instantly available to the user with one click on an electronic device. It is fundamentally horizontal, both in organization and in spirit.

Instead of working from the top down, the DPLA relies on “service hubs,” or small administrative centers, to promote local collections and aggregate them at the state level. “Content hubs” located in institutions with collections of at least 250,000 items — for example, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and the collective digital repository known as HathiTrust — provide the bulk of the DPLA’s holdings. [more]