Digital Public Library of America and Europeana— two major history portals

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Volume 23

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Digitised history sites like Trinity’s 1641 Depositions and Letters of 1916 have made it easier for historians to access primary sources from the comfort of their own homes. They are not unique. In the past few years two major digital history portals have emerged—the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and Europeana. The latter, which dates from 2008, and DPLA, launched in 2013, were set up with the goal of making social, artistic and scientific heritage accessible to the public. The portals run through various partners, such as the US National Archives and the Smithsonian in the case of DPLA and the National Library of the Netherlands, the British Library, the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam and the Louvre in the case of Europeana.

The portals, through their contributing sites, feature millions of books, manuscripts, paintings, exhibits, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised. The items are available on the originating institution’s website, but the ability to discover materials from many areas in one place is a great convenience and enhances cross-cultural studies. Both DPLA and Europeana collect metadata that describe the material rather than the material itself. A searcher clicks through to the original site that holds the material. With both portals, the metadata will be made available for reuse in the public domain.

DPLA is designed to work with Europeana. From an early stage, DPLA adopted the Europeana data model, which makes the two data sets interoperable. The two portals have collaborated in creating an on-line demonstration exhibition on immigration called Leaving Europe: A new life in America (http://exhibitions. It is possible to simul-taneously search both portals.

Today the internet-using public has access to millions of sources, produced in hundreds of languages and providing information about many cultures. Not merely public libraries but also libraries in schools, universities, historical societies and museums all have artefacts often hidden from public view. While copyright poses major challenges to the general distribution of popular film, books and pamphlets, these issues for the most part affect only the past 100 years of the human record. Works from almost 98% of the period from which our sources survive are in the public domain.
DPLA and Europeana will not replace public libraries but will expand their reach, giving them the opportunity to transform their role by creating connections between previously isolated networks of public, school and academic libraries. DPLA and Europeana will incorporate all media types and formats, including the written record—books, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts and digital texts. Much of this content is in the public domain and has already been digitised and is accessible through the relevant libraries’ sites.

Programmers will also be able to develop tools to build on top of the content. This will be open-source and any aggregated information will be in the public domain. Both portals will provide a number of tools to facilitate a broader access to knowledge. DPLA is active in promoting ‘hackathons’ to challenge programmers to provide quick, useful tools within a short space of time.

The portals provide a public space in which patrons have opportunities to learn and contribute. The teacher, the university tutor, the librarian, the student and the citizen scholar interact with each other, forming a community of interest. They can also provide a platform for members of the public to contribute their own digitised artefacts.

For historians and educators, the portals could foster curiosity and intellectual development, creating a generation of student researchers and citizen scholars who work alongside more advanced researchers and professional historians. The portals can make history more accessible and facilitate the exploration of subjects such as local history or great events from new perspectives.
Digital Public Library of America,; Europeana,

John Heffernan is a second-level history teacher and a community rep for the Digital Public Library of America.


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