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DPLA – The Most Important Cultural Advancement Since the Internet?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

“DPLA it!” If those planning the National Digital Public Library (DPLA) have their way, this term will someday become a commonly used verb in the way that “Google” has. What is the DPLA and what are the implications for teaching, learning, and American intellectual life?

DPLA Beta Proposal Video

The DPLA is currently nothing more than a concept with a few prototype ideas like the one above. It is the brainchild of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and is beginning to gain momentum in the quest to make it a reality. The plan is to create a cyber-portal to allow for nationwide (and potentially global) access to public, academic, and government libraries. John Palfry, co-director of the Berkman Center, sees the DPLA as a way for more people to access library services and share public resources (Chronicle.com, Oct. 25, 2011). When completed, the DPLA could provide digital access to all public domain materials through a publically accessible interface. There is even a possibility that copyrighted materials could be available through the initiative, if current legal precedent governing library access to copyrighted material is extended to cover this initiative.

Recent pledges of $2.5 million from both the Sloan Foundation and the British-based Arcadia Fund, as well as another $1 million in private donations, have spurred the initiative on. This initial funding combined with the strong vision and commitment of those behind the idea could make this one of the most important efforts in cultural advancement since the creation of the Internet. At least that is what the members of the project’s steering committee hope.

A Rebirth of Intellectualism
Steering committee member Jerome McGann, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is convinced that the project will become a reality and "reignite the American Enlightenment" (Chronicle.com, Oct. 25, 2011). This is a bold hope, and one that will be difficult to realize, given the current economic climate and general issues with library funding. However, this proposal has the potential to spark an intellectual revival if allowed to develop.

Current physical libraries serve an important role in our society, providing access to materials, particularly for the economically-disadvantaged, as well as services and guidance in promoting broader literacy. Though the DPLA is still very abstract, one thing is certain: that increased access to library materials through a ubiquitous interface on computers, smartphones, and e-readers, could prompt people to read more, research topics of personal interest, and share that information with others. The social dimension of this project is one way in which it could revolutionize intellectual life.  

David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Berkman Center, sees the DPLA as a way "not simply to connect people to works," but also "to connect people to people through works” (Chronicle.com, Oct. 25, 2011). Weinberger envisions a complex, yet intuitive social network which connects those interested in a particular work or topic in a spontaneous and collaborative learning relationship. A social system built around DPLA could feature discussions, peer review, like/dislike, Twitter and Facebook integration, and other ways of sharing the texts themselves, the information in them, and discussions sparked by them. This could become a natural model of interacting with library materials in a new and exciting way. This social aspect of the process could also influence education in dramatic ways.

DPLA in the Classroom
The vision of the DPLA connecting citizens to and through electronic materials could also revolutionize the social structures of education. We are entering an era where knowledge and information are no longer the domain of the individual, but are rather considered to be collective. Through initiatives like Wikipedia and crowdsourcing we are coming to realize that there is a value in socially constructing meaning. DPLA could bring this collective social knowledge into the classroom and inspire a new way of reading and understanding texts.

Courses could be designed not only around what an individual instructor knows about a subject, but also around what the public thinks and knows about it. In this way a more informed, broader perspective on what any given work means and represents could be studied, rather than the traditional, canonical, western academic view. Diverse opinions and ideas could be represented and people beyond the classroom could become a part of the discussion. This would serve the additional purpose of increasing intellectual life for society as a whole. Imagine a society in which everyone felt that their opinion and knowledge mattered and were part of a larger discussion. That would be an inspiration to many to further their education in a less formal way. This idea of informal education being of great value is not new. The MacArthur Foundation and other organizations recently proposed an initiative to make informal learning more broadly recognized through digital badges. Integrating this concept into the planning for the DPLA is one way of spreading academic learning beyond the classroom and recognizing the value of it.

Will it Really Happen?
This question earns a resounding “maybe” from me. I love the idea and think that it truly does have the potential to help bridge the Digital Divide and spark an intellectual rebirth in a world which is too focused on material gain instead of societal and intellectual advancement. The challenges to the actual creation of this platform are great, but not insurmountable. Knowledge and learning seem to follow a kind of natural law that wants to constantly move them towards being freely accessible. It flies in the face of our capitalist, individualist notions of how the world should be, but we seem to still continually move towards more accessible and socially connected information. I take this as a very positive sign that human nature and our natural curiosity will produce a gradual shift towards the liberation of knowledge, and the DPLA is one sign that it is coming. Hopefully sooner rather than later.