Online archive of more than 2m books, documents, photographs and artworks from all over US now available to view for free
Gold paint glowing, there's an illuminated manuscript page from The Book of Hours, dated 1514. A gruelling photograph of the standoff between strikers and militia at the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Black men marching, protesting against segregation in downtown Atlanta in 1960. Extraordinary accounts of the lives of Native Americans during the 19th century. The Digital Public Library of America has just launched, gathering together more than 2m items – books, photographs, manuscripts, art – from the country's libraries, archives and museums, and making them available to the public online for free. It's as if, a member of its steering committee said as the library opened its virtual doors late in April, "the ancient library of Alexandria had met the modern world wide web and digitised America for the benefit of all".
The DPLA has been in the works for the past two years. A non-profit initiative, it has received millions of dollars of funding to digitise and bring together online the collections of the US's great libraries, as well as pieces and texts from regional museums and archives. "One of the best things which people are discovering is that we have brought together lots of very small collections," says Dan Cohen, executive director, who joined the project from a role as director of the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for history and new media at George Mason University. "Yes, we have hundreds of thousands of items from the Smithsonian … but we've also worked with, for example, a historical society from Red Wing, Minnesota, who have amazing images of one of the first hot air balloon flights. It's completely fascinating – it's enabling people to find really incredible local history."
The DPLA has also just announced a new partnership with the David Rumsey map collection, adding tens of thousands of historical maps and images to its online archive, from an 1833 "Eagle" map of the US, showing an eagle "sitting atop the nation", to an early 19th-century map giving the first accurate depiction of the relationship of the sources of the Missouri, the sources of the Columbia and the Rockies. "It has everything from medieval diagrammes to very modern material," says Cohen.
There are "millions of objects in the pipeline" to add to the 2.4m currently online, with "service hubs" around the country aggregating material from smaller places. "We are in a growth phase and as quickly as we can we will expand out the library," Cohen says. "But we want to make sure all the metadata is very rigorous."
The main issue the DPLA is facing is copyright – just as Google did when it was sued by authors and publishers for its plans to digitise millions of books for Google Book Search, including in-copyright titles.
"Copyright is the biggest point of friction right now," according to Cohen, "particularly for certain kinds of things like books, where everything before 1923 is in the public domain, and from 1923 on you start running into barriers."
Cohen is working together with scholar, author and Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton, a key member of the DPLA's committee, to solve the issue. "One of the things Bob and I are both really interested in is are there some creative ways we can think of getting more … books into the public sphere," says Cohen. "We want authors and publishers to make money, but the vast majority of books make most of their money in the first five years, then sit in copyright for the next 100 years. We think there might be creative ways to get more of those authors into the public sphere."
One of these options could be an "authors' alliance", where the author receives their rights back from the publisher after a certain amount of time, and can donate them to the DPLA if they want. "Or a 'library licence', where a book could be under standard copyright protection for a certain period of time set by the publisher, five or 10 or 15 years, and after that the DPLA would get a gift of a single ebook copy, and we could host a version."
"We want to have a variety of methods so publishers and authors can feel more confident about saying 'we are going to recoup our costs', but provision for the fact that we don't need to lock stuff down until 2118, when we'll all be on Mars … But these are conversations which have just started, and there may be other creative ways of doing things," says Cohen. "There needs to be some sort of balance. It is a lot healthier to have a nation of voracious readers who sometimes get their reading material for free either through their libraries or the DPLA, than a nation of TV watchers."
In the meantime, Cohen is "really curious" to see how people interact with the DPLA and the millions of items it already has to show. "I've already got messages from teachers who have integrated it into their classrooms [and] we also view the DPLA as a technology platform others can build on. We have a growing app library where the material can be used, for instance to create a mobile app to access the local history around you," he says. "We are 100% open. You can download the DPLA and do with it what you want."