DPLA: A Look Back on the Last 5 Years

Posted by Emily Gore in April 18, 2018.

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Five years ago today, we launched the Digital Public Library of America. We rang the bell inside a small conference room at Harvard’s Berkman Center as dp.la went live with 2.4 million items. The aggregated collections came from six Service Hubs representing the states of Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, South Carolina, and one multi-state collaborative representing the Mountain West. Individual institutions that were a part of the launch as Content Hubs included the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Virginia.

The Digital Public Library of America grew out of a series of community conversations and a planning process led by the Berkman Center and quickly became a reality with the launch on April 18, 2013. At that time, DPLA had only four full-time staff, Dan Cohen, Emily Gore, Amy Rudersdorf, and Kenny Whitebloom. Between us, we poured countless hours of metadata wrangling, partner recruitment and communications, contractor negotiations and feedback, outreach and press contacts, fundraising, and shared visioning into creating the first US national digital library.

Watch the official DPLA launch bell ringing and passing of the “baton” to the inaugural DPLA staff.

DPLA now holds over 21 million items representing the digital collections of over 3,000 cultural heritage institutions across the United States, and has grown as an organization to a staff of fifteen. Soon after the launch, we added a small Technology Team, a Metadata guru and a Curation and Education Strategist. As the team grew, we were able to expand the digital library and develop related resources, including Primary Source Sets, Exhibitions, and our new Topic Browse.  In addition, we have been able to develop DPLA Pro, a website for our members to exchanges ideas, share documentation, and learn more about our processes.

Recently, all of the current staff of the DPLA met in Boston for an all-hands meeting, and MIT Libraries’ Director and DPLA Board member Chris Bourg joined us over lunch. Chris said something that stuck with me that day that I found particularly relevant for DPLA. She said, “Collaboration builds at the speed of trust.”

In a short five years, DPLA and our partners have turned a vision into a vibrant community. DPLA isn’t just an aggregation of data. DPLA is collections AND it’s people throughout the country who care about digital cultural heritage and who are invested in doing more together than we can do individually.  DPLA is trust—in the staff, in the community, in our collective commitment to build a national digital library that is a participatory platform.

DPLA offers learners across the country and around the world a one-of-a-kind research experience that puts the digital collections of the nation’s local historical societies, public libraries, research universities, and national repositories on an even playing field, opening up new possibilities for discovery and learning with each passing year. Over the last five years, countless students, researchers, scholars, genealogists, educators, journalists, and many others have visited DPLA in search of knowledge.

If you’ve enjoyed getting lost in the DPLA collections, participated as a part of our network, attended an event, or are just learning about DPLA for the first time, I hope you will join me in celebrating the Digital Public Library of America’s 5th birthday! Here’s to many more years of success and growth!

On behalf of the DPLA staff, thanks to all our users, partners, friends, and fans, who have helped make DPLA a thriving community!