Perspectives from DPLAfest 2016 Part II: Growing our Network and Building Community

By DPLA, May 6, 2016.
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With DPLAfest 2016 larger than ever, we reached out to a few attendees ahead of the event to help us capture the (many) diverse experiences of fest participants.  These ‘special correspondents’ have graciously volunteered to share their personal perspectives on the fest.  In this second guest post by our special correspondents, Kristen Yarmey and Patrick Murray-John, both of whom are part of the DPLA Community Reps program, join Kerry Dunne, Sara Stephenson, and Emily Pfotenhauer in reflecting on their fest experiences from the perspectives of their fields and interests: the growth of DPLA and its network and sharing and creative reuse of cultural heritage materials.

An Open, Distributed Network: Thoughts from DPLAFest 2016

By Kristen Yarmey, Associate Professor and Digital Services Librarian, The University of Scranton, DPLA Community Rep and member of the PA Digital Partnership Founders’ Group and Metadata Team


DPLAfest welcomed some of DPLA’s founders as well as newcomers.

“I was there when DPLA was born,” intoned David Ferrario, Archivist of the United States, at DPLAFest’s opening session. He was hardly the only one feeling nostalgic; the entire conference was peppered with DPLA remembrances. Maura Marx of IMLS displayed her laptop and its well-worn DPLA sticker as an attestation that she, too, was there when it all began. At the closing session, Dan Cohen recalled attending DPLA’s first plenary in the same room, five years earlier.

My own DPLA origin story is comparatively unimpressive. I’m not a founder. I wasn’t on any of the early committees or work groups. I wasn’t at any important meetings or planning sessions. I didn’t even make it to DPLAFest until the third go-round!

But I was at the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s Digital Directions conference in Boston back in June 2012. One of the very last sessions was a presentation by Emily Gore (then a librarian at Florida State University), titled “The Power of Where Your Collections Can Go: Towards a Digital Public Library of America.” Her presentation wasn’t the first I’d heard of DPLA (I’d seen some announcements), but it was my first real, in-depth exposure to the values and vision behind DPLA.

Emily described fragmented, institutional collections taking on new lives and coming together into cohesive, virtual collections. She outlined plans for a strategic network of interoperable code and open data. She showed us a diagram that sketched out a distributed “hub and spoke” model for contributors, and she emphasized the importance of collective action, telling us to “get on the list and participate.” I’m ordinarily a pretty pragmatic person, not prone to swoon over new ideas. But it’s no exaggeration to say that this presentation and this idea spoke to my digital librarian soul. It just made so much sense. Right then and there began my love affair with the big dream of DPLA.

The unspoken truth about big dreams, though, is that they are complicated, complex, and difficult to fulfill. There are no shortcuts when it comes to building good, strong, networked infrastructure. There’s no magic wand for establishing and sustaining partnerships between diverse and multitudinous stakeholders. Long-term funding sources are elusive, if not illusory. So progress is almost inevitably slow and almost necessarily frustrating.

At DPLAFest, many sessions addressed the daunting challenges and problems that the organization and its participants face. As a group, our attention was focused on the tasks ahead. At the same time, though, there were calls for celebration: Jon Voss of HistoryPin, for example, reminded us that DPLAFest is and should be an actual Fest.


Representatives from hubs Minnesota Digital Library, Digital Commonwealth, and The Portal to Texas History wore headwear representing their home states while sharing models for contributing to DPLA.

I’d like to celebrate, then, an observation that struck me repeatedly at DPLAFest, which is how the fruitfully and verdantly the DPLA network is growing. I loved the emerging spirit of friendly competition between hubs—a sense of egging each other on—but also the willingness to openly share their ideas, workflows, code, documents, and resources. Speakers confessed again and again to stealing ideas from other hubs or partners. Conference participants took care to raise concerns or issues on behalf of partners who could not be present; a recurring question was “How might this impact [insert name of beloved local historical society or small museum]?” I kept thinking that this was precisely what DPLA was meant to do, that it’s not simply a network of content but also a network of effort, action, and expertise. And so on the second day I teared up when a DPLA board member thanked us and told us it was “so energizing” to see the DPLA network working the way it was intended.

It was particularly exciting for me to attend DPLAFest with the PA Digital team. My pride in Pennsylvania and the hard work that so many of my colleagues have done to establish our service hub is such that I got irrationally defensive when a single, slightly outdated PowerPoint slide displayed a DPLA hub map without Pennsylvania highlighted.  Two years of collaboration on DPLA have strengthened ties among our team and across our state, bringing new meaning and energy to our geographical proximity.

All this said, collaboration does not imply or require conformity. What struck me about DPLA’s distributed model back in 2012, and what strikes me still, is that it’s an environment of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” We can have both local control and unified access. We can benefit from data standards without erasing “nonstandard” data. We can work together but also apart. We can be many voices, not one. And so when I heard points of disagreement and debate during DPLAFest, I rejoiced that DPLA fosters what Sarah Vowell calls “the luxury of dissent.”

DPLAFest presents a moment, an annual milestone where we can pause to acknowledge how far we have come. It is true that DPLA is not perfect, but it is good—very good—and getting better every day. (How could it not, with such brilliant people working on it?) In these past few years, we have faced knotty problems. We have stared down dirty metadata, fought funding cuts, and drafted institutional policies. We partnered up to develop new open source software platforms and worked with publishers to find new ways to encourage kids to read. We’ve connected teachers and students with primary sources that bring history and its complications into vivid relief. We have advocated for changes to outdated and ineffective copyright laws and established a new set of standardized rights statements. We have increased access to African American history and proved conclusively that Lady Gaga was not the first to wear a food dress. We contributed 13 million remarkable items of cultural heritage. 13 million!

No matter how hard it is for us to stop and celebrate when there’s so much to do, these are accomplishments that deserve a quiet moment of sincere, heartfelt recognition. So I take this moment to say thank you, all of you, for bringing the big dream of DPLA ever closer to reality. Cheers, and well done.

Ownership, Sharing, and Involvement: Some reflections on DPLAFest 2016

By Patrick Murray-John, Web Developer and Assistant Research Professor at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and DPLA Community Rep

First, any reflection needs to acknowledge and say thanks to all the people who put the Fest together. From arranging wonderful spaces, to organizing proposals and sessions, to addressing all the last-minute quirks of a major conference, they did a fantastic job. Many thanks!

From the sessions I visited, two major take-away themes appeared to me. On Thursday, the theme was ‘ownership and sharing’. On Friday, ‘involvement’.


Newly launched rights statements are already implemented for the current alpha version of Omeka S. Learn more at

The major reveal of the opening session that hits the theme I see of ‘ownership and sharing’ is the announcement of The site, a joint project by Europeana and DPLA, provides a much needed list of eleven statements describing the copyright status of cultural heritage artifacts. Seen here as John Flatness has implemented it for the current alpha version of Omeka S, the statements provide a standardized vocabulary for describing how we can use the materials surfaced by our institutions. Having a common vocabulary for knowing the sharing potential will help creators, artists, and innovators stand on better footing for seeing their ideas for promoting the progress of science and useful arts.

Speaking of the progress of science and useful arts, the session Do We Need to Worry?: Update on Copyright Matters Affecting Digital Libraries highlighted important decisions in court cases that affect the openness of our cultural heritage. Being transformative seems a key point. That encourages me greatly, since it seems to promote seeing documents as also data to be worked with. That’s a key thing in how I envision digital humanities. Court decisions will inform important aspects of ownership and the potential for sharing, and guidance and knowledge from the session points to a good future.

Complications to the public sense of ownership and sharing appeared in Pond to Lake to Ocean: Partnerships for Moving Cultural Heritage Materials into the DPLA. There, I saw many public archival projects negotiating the desire to bring personal records into our archives and negotiating between the desires of donors to have some control over how their materials are used, and how the materials are accessioned. As it becomes easier and easier to digitize and document history from the public, that balance seems to be a growing technological and ethical consideration.

My takeaway from Friday’s sessions was an impressive sense of involvement from many individuals and communities. I spent my time at the Technology shorts and Building Tools with the DPLA API and Developer Showcase sessions (as well as the “Omeka S” session), but it seemed like other sessions, like Testing a Linked Data Fragments Server using DPLA Data & PCDM, IIIF, and Interoperability reflect the same principle. I saw many different ways that people want to interact with documents and data from DPLA. DPLA is still a young venture, and it is heartening to see how much work is being done on the two sides of pushing more up to DPLA and Europeana, and pulling more down to use the heritage in creative and interesting ways.