An exciting new initiative began today when the Digital Public Library of America launched its first six service and content hubs. The hubs promise to unleash millions of historical, scientific and cultural documents from many of America’s national and state institutions, making them easily searchable as digital records to anyone with an Internet connection.
In Georgia, the Digital Library of Georgia serves as the regional hub. The DLG is an initiative of GALILEO, Georgia’s statewide virtual library, and it is based at the University of Georgia Libraries.
The Digital Public Library of America’s common platform also provides an open programming interface and metadata structure that will allow for free and innovative use of these materials by educators, researchers, programmers and the public. Taking part in the launch as the first service hubs are state and regional libraries in Massachusetts, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Minnesota and the Mountain West region.
Driven by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Knight Foundation has supported the project since 2011 as part of its library initiative that aims to reimagine libraries as centers for community engagement and digital access. For us, the goal of Digital Public Library of America aligns with Knight’s strong belief that informed communities are able to best determine their own interests. And we are thrilled to be part of a project that furthers this strong vision of engagement.
The Digital Library of Georgia is a massive aggregation in its own right with one million objects in more than 200 collections from 60+ institutions and 100+ state government agencies. It also provides a portal to two jewel collections: this Civil Rights Digital Library and the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries’ Civil War Portal.
Associate Director of the Digital Library of Georgia and DPLA service-hub Director Sheila McAlister is excited to see what happens when Georgia’s content mixes with other local and national collections when DPLA launches in April. “Users all over the country are going to be exposed to content that tells the story of the country in a way they haven’t been able to do before,” she explained, saying she sees “so much potential to help fill out that nuanced history of our country.”
The Digital Library of Georgia‘s first exhibit for the Digital Public Library of America will focus on American social movements and feature some of the collection’s unique civil rights content. Current partners span libraries, archives, museums and educational institutions of every size.
Below, McAlister talks more about her hope for the project’s future and what she sees as major challenges, including metadata alignment across the diverse institutions involved, access to materials that are not in the public domain, and keeping project momentum and interest going so that the general public becomes just as excited about digital library as librarians are.
Could tell me about your organization and how you became involved with the Digital Public Library of America?
S.M: The Digital Library of Georgia is the cultural heritage digitization initiative for the state of Georgia. We work with libraries, archives, museums,and other institutions of education, and we help them take their important historical content and put it online for everybody all over the country to use—all over the world, even.
What’s unique about the collections that you have at the Digital Library of Georgia?
S.M: Aside from the wonderful Georgia-related content, the Digital Library of Georgia also is the host of two other projects that have nationwide import, and that would be the Civil Rights Digital Library, which at its heart has about 30 hours of raw news footage of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. And then we’re also the host for the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries’ Civil War Portal. And so we’re hoping to bring all of that content along with our amazing Georgia content into national digital library.
Do you think those will be part of any of the first exhibitions for the Digital Public Library? can you give us a preview of what will be there?
S.M: As you know, each of the hubs is going to be doing an exhibit, and our exhibit is going to be on social movements and activism in the United States, so I imagine that we’re going to be featuring a lot of civil rights content.
So what local benefits do you think that your position as a service hub will end up providing?
S.M: The local benefits will be that we’re able to work with institutions that are really strapped for resources to help them bring forward their own content and share it with a larger community. And one of the things that we’re really hoping to do is work with smaller libraries in the state, so I think to me that’s particularly exciting, given the kinds of budget stresses that libraries in our state are having.
Can you give any indication of the number of different historical societies, libraries, groups that you all serve as a hub for right now?
S.M: I believe we serve as a hub for about 100 different institutions. That includes all three of the portals. Plus, we also work with over 100 agencies of the state government through our Georgia government publications database.
What different types of libraries and societies do you work with?
S.M: We work with everything from large research libraries—for example, Emory, University of Georgia, Georgia State, Georgia Tech—to small, public libraries. For example, we’ve done a number of projects with the Middle Georgia Archives, which is in Macon and is one of the Knight communities. We’ve also worked with historical societies, as well. A couple of the bigger ones like the Atlanta History Center and the Georgia Historical Society, both of which will be contributing content.
What affect do you think the Digital Public Library launch in April will have nationally—for libraries, for users, for other information providers?
S.M: I see it as a really exciting thing for libraries. The users all over the country are going to be exposed to content that tells the story of the country in a way they haven’t been able to do before. I think that only about 40 out of the 50 states have state-wide digital library initiatives, and there’s just really not one place where people can go to get content that really covers a lot of the different communities and histories. And DPLA is going to be that place. I’m really excited to see it grow in the future. There’s so much potential to help fill out that nuanced history of our country.
What challenges are you anticipating going forward after the launch, as the project grows and expands?
S.M: Some of the challenges are dealing with materials that are not in the public domain. So, that’s definitely something that I think is on the minds of not only the hubs, but also the project as a whole—how do we balance that and get people the kind of content that they want. I think another challenge is keeping the momentum going, and again, with tight budgets, our own state archives suffered really bad cuts over the last year. Once the exciting big splash is over, how do we keep that momentum going and keep the interest going?
I hear that you’re the metadata brain behind the Digital Public Library.
Well, that’s exaggerating a little bit. I enjoy good, thorough metadata.
How has that experience been—trying to get all the metadata from all these really different types of portals aligning?
S.M: It’s a challenge, and I think really part of the challenge is balancing a boutique approach with getting as much out there as possible. So, we’re kind of working our way through that, and I think one of the things that we did with some of our constituent libraries was put a lot of effort into describing that content really, really well—from providing people with historic grounding in what’s going on in these clips, which are often unannotated; you have to go through and identify the people. It’s not useful to people unless they have that background information. For that project, we were able to do that. We’re not able to do that with all the projects, so we have to find that sort of sweet spot between the two.
For me, that’s challenging, because I wish I could do everything to that level, but the reality is that not everything can be that way. So we’ve been working a lot on automating and just thinking of new and different, faster ways to do things. I’m also really excited about some of the potential that the project is going to have to look at things like data, which at my institution, we love to do, but given the massive, massive amounts of data, and being on the ground, we don’t necessarily have the time to do that. And I’m really excited to see how the project leverages all of that together. And I’m hoping to learn new things and bring them back to Georgia’s digital library.
So what’s your hope for the Digital Public Library project going forward? What’s your big-vision dream?
S.M: I would like to see, again, more states and regions represented. I would like to really see the general public get behind it and embrace it and also see the value of libraries, which I think unfortunately they sometimes don’t do.
So how does that happen? How do we get the public to embrace it? Is that the library’s job?
S.M: I think it’s a grassroots kind of thing. Obviously, in the library community, there’s a lot of talk about the Digital Public Library. I don’t think it’s crossed into the general public as much, although I will say we did actually have a few individuals who were super excited about having their own personal items included in the archive. So, we’ve got to get the larger community, and I’m hoping that things like these exhibits—and maybe working with teachers and that kind of thing—that’s the way you hook people in.
By Annie Schutte, a librarian, teacher and consultant for Knight Foundation