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.)