The Digital Public Library of America is a beautiful idea. Take the physical-to-digital ambition of Google Books and wed it to the civic spirit of the US public library system, providing a centralized portal to a decentralized network of digital media from libraries, museums, universities, archives, and other local, regional, and national collections. Framed in this way, it all seems so logical, so proper, so clear — everything the internet as a public commons promised to be. Surely the messy reality of copyright law, limited local budgets, or the cat-herding that goes into any grand alliance of independent institutions was bound to foul it up somewhere.

The DPLA is in fact real, and will hold a launch event on April 18 at the Boston Public Library. In an essay in The New York Review of Books, Harvard University Librarian Robert Darnton describes how the DPLA's organizers overcame some of that messy reality to get the new nonprofit off the ground, and some of the obstacles (read: copyright) with which it's still grappling. (As a historian of the 18th century, Darnton also unsurprisingly places the DPLA within the overlapping traditions of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution.)

"Any reader [can] consult works that used to be stored on inaccessible shelves or locked up in treasure rooms."

Unlike Google Books, the DPLA doesn't hoover up institutions' documents to be stored on its own servers. Its primary goal is to support coordinate scanning efforts by each of its partner institutions, and to act as a central search engine and metadata repository. Most of these libraries and museums have been slowly scanning and cataloguing their collections for years; the DPLA helps make those materials aggregatable and interoperable. At least initially, it's not nearly as focused on printed books as Google has been, but rather gathers an eclectic mix of texts, photos, data, and art, especially rare documents. It also provides a sophisticated frontend portal for discovery and research.

Darnton describes the DPLA's goal well:

The user-friendly interface will therefore enable any reader — say, a high school student in the Bronx — to consult works that used to be stored on inaccessible shelves or locked up in treasure rooms — say, pamphlets in the Huntington Library of Los Angeles about nullification and secession in the antebellum South. Readers will simply consult the DPLA through its URL, http://dp.la/. They will then be able to search records by entering a title or the name of an author, and they will be connected through the DPLA’s site to the book or other digital object at its home institution.

The DPLA's partner institutions include the Smithsonian, the National Archives and Records Administration, Harvard University Library, the New York Public Library, ARTstor, and a number of state and regional digital library initiatives that will act as "service hubs" for local libraries and museums. The one glaring omission that would seem crucial to any "public library of America" is the Library of Congress; Darnton writes that "the sponsors naturally hope that the Library of Congress also will participate." The organization is funded for its first two years by grants from federal endowments and private foundations (Sloan, Arcadia, Knight, Soros, the NEH, the Institute of Museum and Library Services — or as DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen affectionately calls them, "the usual suspects"). But continued fundraising and evangelizing remains a big part of Cohen's mandate going forward.

The DPLA as a repository, the DPLA as a platform

The competitive goal is to catch up with the rest of the world. "Europeana has aggregated 20 million cultural heritage objects from hundreds of sites," Cohen tells The Verge. But as a historian and digital humanist, Cohen is more excited about what he calls "the DPLA as a platform."

"The launch will showcase some transformative uses [of the archive] that show what you can do with a massive digital library that's been operationalized," says Cohen. The DPLA has been equipped with a rich API for developers, artists, and others to engage, adapt, and revisualize art and text. "The DPLA's terms, if you look at them, are extremely permissive," Cohen adds. "We are really fighting for a maximally usable and transferrable knowledge base. Everything, where possible, will be CC-zero licensed. If you're Google, you can come right in and take everything. It's just like Wikipedia. You can grab this stuff and use it as you want." Text mining, mapping, art projects — it's all open for business.

The DPLA as an advocate for open access and enrichment of the public sphere

Cohen also notes that the DPLA's "enrichment of the public sphere will be important from an advocacy role." He wants to create a platform where academic scholarship, whether in journals or monographs, can be disseminated and preserved in open formats for current and future generations. He wants to find ways for public libraries to engage in collective action with book publishers to make e-books as available as possible to US citizens. He wants the DPLA to explore alternative approaches to copyright that preserve authors' and publishers' chief profit window but also maximizing a work's circulation, including the "library license" that would allow public, noncommercial entities (like the DPLA) to have digital access to certain works in copyright after five years, or Knowledge Unlatched, a consortium that purchases in-copyright books for open access. The DPLA also wants to work directly with authors to donate their books to the commons.

So while the DPLA's holdings aren't limited to books, its inauguration could pose a real challenge to the current regime of publishers, booksellers, and search engines in the US. It aims to tilt knowledge repositories away from private control and toward a public commons. The only things the brand-new institution will have to navigate are getting money, finding talented developers, fostering public awareness, and balancing the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, both public and private, commercial and noncommercial, with the collected cultural heritage of a nation in the balance. But while those obstacles are formidable, they're small compared to the inertial forces that could have kept the DPLA from ever getting off the ground. The thing exists. That's the hardest part, and that's what matters.