Reflections: Public Humanities Practicum at the Digital Public Library of America

November 8, 2013
hand-drawn infographic at the DPLA Office


On Wednesday, November 13, Digital Library of America founding director Dan Cohen will be speaking at the Public Humanities Center. His talk keynotes our Open House for those interested in applying to the program, and Brown’s Digital Scholarship Week.  Second-year public humanities student Hillary Brady is conducting her practicum at the Digital Public Library of America this term.  We asked her to tell us more about it.

"When I first learned about the Digital Public Library of America, my initial thought was “That’s such a great idea!” The one that quickly came after was, “But, how?” Luckily, through a practicum this semester at the fledgling (and rapidly growing) DPLA, I’ve been able to learn the tangible “how” behind their larger mission: bringing together content from libraries, archives and museums nationwide and making it freely available to the public. Beyond that, I’ve been able to see the “how” behind the merging of that work with my experience in the Public Humanities program.

The DPLA describes itself as a combination of portal, platform and principle—all of which contributes to not just its unique stance on, and model of open, public access; but, also its place as an organization putting goals and practices we discuss in our Public Humanities work into action every day.

As a portal, it brings resources to the general public every day. With nearly 5 million items in its collection, it pools together digital assets from places as well known as the Smithsonian or the National Archives, in combination with contributions from community libraries and archives. It lets people access diverse, fascinating and incredibly informative digital items that wouldn’t ordinarily come up on the first page of Google.

For example, while it might take a lot for me to search a variety of institutional websites—separately checking the Smithsonian, or HathiTrust, or the New York Public Library—with the DPLA, it’s one step. I get items that are more diverse than a Google search in a way that’s attractive and easy to navigate. Part of my practicum is running the DPLA’s social media accounts, which includes highlighting a new item every day. I get to see the DPLA portal in action, and I find something new, quirky and interesting every time I hit “search.”  

Not only does the DPLA give the public a way to research in a new way, it gives people a way to use its platform in new ways. With an open application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, it allows people to create their own apps using DPLA content ( being one of my favorite examples). Then, as for principle, the DPLA works toward open informational access for the public—making collections available and easy to tap into.

As a Public Humanities student, these ideas are at the heart of my studies and work. But the connection didn’t become real to me until I attended DPLAfest, the DPLA’s first conference, this past October. I attended the DPLA Local Unconference, a discussion and brainstorming session with members of the DPLA Board of Directors and local librarians, educators and archivists about how the DPLA can make an impact on the community level.

Hearing the board, staff and participants think so critically about how to best serve the public—big institutions and small communities alike—was an energizing experience. The DPLA spirit of openness extended to the amount of consideration everyone in the room took in proactively brainstorming the best ways the DPLA can reach its audience. Spending my practicum at the DPLA’s offices, in the Boston Public Library, it’s sometimes difficult to see just how far-reaching the DPLA’s mission is. Sitting in that conference workshop, it made it clear to me that there is a real space for the public to actively engage with the DPLA and that there was a need for this organization on the local level. 

With a new large-scale grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to train local librarians in digitization, and next-steps discussed at the DPLAfest, it’s clear that public engagement (large scale or small scale) is at the forefront at the DPLA. Moreover, there is a public that wants and needs access to library, museum and archival collections—the DPLA can help make that possible in a thoughtful way.  It certainly makes it an exciting place to be for a Public Human." 


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