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What is DP.LA?

What’s dp.la? A pass to the world’s prestigious libraries. It’s yours, and it’s free.

By Becky Froehlich


What if you could visit each of the nation’s most prestigious libraries and museums within seconds?

It’s now possible—at least, virtually.

After years in the works, the Digital Public Library of America (http://dp.la) launched in April. It offers an enormous database knowledge, collected from the earliest written records to most modern films. This treasure trove is also free and easy to access.

The DPLA is the brainchild of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, which researches Internet legal issues as well as the web’s impact on modern culture. The idea of a national digital library first percolated in the 1990s, according to the DPLA website, but DPLA advocates didn’t begin the planning process until 2010.

Soon after, the DPLA’s Steering Committee was formed, and this group, along with hundreds of librarians, academics, museum curators, Internet activists and technologists, found unlikely common ground in what the DPLA’s aim should be: “to create an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in current and future generations.”

Unlike Google Books, another online record of the written word, the DPLA is operated through philanthropy rather than as for-profit corporation.

“It became clear, as Google’s project evolved, that it would be a commercial enterprise, and in fact an enterprise attached to a gigantic monopoly … a monopoly, perhaps, with the best intentions, but that would not necessarily serve the public good,” explained Harvard librarian Robert Darnton, who conceived the idea for the DPLA, in a 2011 Boston Globe interview.

Darnton wants, instead, to “democratize” access to knowledge, by letting everyone from K-12 students to community colleges to the elderly use resources for free. The website was also specifically coded for ease of merging with prospective partners, such as the European Union’s digital library initiative, Europa.

The Digital Public Library of America also offers a solution to a pervasive problem in the Internet age: How to sort through the overwhelming amount of information available with the press of an Enter key. Much of this information can be irrelevant, or worse, untrue. The DPLA serves as a reliable “pointer service” in this world of information, explained DPLA member Carl Malamud in “Inside the Quest to Put the World’s Libraries Online” in July’s issue of The Atlantic.

“In the ’60s, our challenge was, ‘How do we build roads?’” Malamud said. “I think, in this day and age, it’s the knowledge infrastructure. That is our big challenge.”

While many libraries in the United States have digitized their collections, until now, there has not been a convenient way to connect them. This project makes it easy to compare and compile information from many sources.

One example of this is the DPLA’s “exhibit” webpages, which are compilations of information on one historical topic, with helpful subcategories and slideshows of information on related ideas. This wealth of knowledge is also credible, offering knowledge from some of the most well-respected archives in the nation without cost. The Digital Public Library of America aims to revolutionize the way we research, offering comprehensive, dependable and easily accessed resources.

Curious North and South Dakotans will find dozens of pages on the Dakotas in the DPLA. Here is just a sampling.


This is General George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat, which can be found at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. His wife donated it to the museum in 1912, 36 years after his death at Little Big Horn. The measurements given are 27 in x 24 in (68.58 cm x 60.96 cm) — interestingly, even a men’s size small might be too roomy on General Custer today!

Source: http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=record_ID%3Anmah_529840&repo=DPLA



This print is from the Library of Congress, entitled: “Crowds at Mitchell, S.D., while President Roosevelt says, ‘It rests upon yourself to win success.’” The 1903 double print is remarkably well-detailed considering its age, and gives a wonderful peek at the faces of the Dakotas in the early 20th century. It is also interesting to see the number of women attending the political speech at a time before they could vote. Theodore Roosevelt was particularly fond of North Dakota, and here he pays a visit to its neighbor to the south.


Source: http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=record_ID%3Asiris_arc_153323&repo=DPLA

(This print can be found at a bigger size here:) http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record.aspx?libID=o275111



















From the Northwest Minnesota Historical Center, this postcard shows teams from Wahpeton and Alexandria playing baseball together in Island Park in Fargo, N.D. It used to cost one cent for a postcard, and the stamp to send it for another, which created the turn of phrase “I’ll give you my two cents’ worth.” Historical postcards are important for documenting purposes because they survived longer than much of the photography of the day. People still gather in Island Park summer concerts and other activities.

Source: http://reflections.mndigital.org/u?/mhd,91












These flints and obsidian flakes were found in the Garrison Reservoir of Mountrail County, N.D. Found in 1954, they are classified as “prehistoric” at the Smithsonian Institute, where these are now housed. Obsidian was often traded by the native Americans, including the Lakota people. These flakes may have been what was left after someone carved out an arrowhead for hunting.

Source: http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=record_ID%3Anmnhanthropology_8153996&repo=DPLA














This image is from the Utah Historical Society’s classified photos. These Ute Indians were photographed after being taken prisoner in Fort Meade, S.D., circa 1906. Most valuably, this photograph is labeled with their names – “left to right: Ben Tabbysheetz, unidentified, Ta-tw-wee Chegup, Mo-cha, Quien, J. Scott Apputnora, Quip, and Tse-uts (brother of Red Cap). In 1905, Utah reduced the Ute people’s land holdings by 85 percent, and from 1906-08, 400 of them fled to South Dakota. Their trek ended in disappointment, with some captured like the ones pictured here, and others not receiving the help from the Lakota they expected.

The Ute immigration is not often remembered in the history of the Dakotas. But perhaps, as more people take a stroll through the Digital Public Library of America, such issues in the Dakota heritage will be less likely to be forgotten in a dusty archive. They can, instead, be just a few keystrokes away.




Becky Froehlich, a recent graduate of Madison High School, will attend the University of South Dakota this fall.

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