Common knowledge

The University was right to participate in the Digital Public Library of America

The University recently announced its plans to participate in the first national digital library, known as the Digital Public Library of America. This ambitious project, which gathers information from an array of scholarly organizations, will give students and scholars access to information available digitally at other universities as well as at the National Archives, the Smithsonian and other federal organizations. The University has decided to provide the Holsinger Studio Collection, which consists of information about Charlottesville from the 19th and 20th centuries. In the future, the University hopes to offer access to 16th-century French texts.

The endeavor to create a large digital library is a fantastic idea. If many other institutions around the nation also offer information digitally, especially information on subjects that may be slightly obscure or unique to an institution, the project could be of great help to researchers across the nation.

For example, students at the University pursuing a distinguished majors program, or any other research program, could benefit extensively. Each department has certain specialized topics that it is unable to cover fully. The politics department, for example, has limited information and classes on countries like Burma. As a result, students could find it difficult to research an unconventional topic. If they had access to the Digital Public Library, though, they could explore such areas with less hesitation because they would not be limited to the information available at the University. By broadening access to historical documents, students will be able to diversify what they wish to learn or research. But the potential benefits of the digital library are by no means limited to DMP students. Professors conducting research, graduate students writing their master’s theses or dissertations and undergraduates writing papers for seminars would also benefit.

Granted, the University has inter-library loans, which function in a similar way, so the Digital Public Library may therefore appear unnecessary. Students can already borrow books from other universities via special requests. But inter-library loans usually take a couple of weeks. The digital library makes accessing texts less of a hassle, and the project could be particularly useful if researchers wanted to access digital copies of un-loanable primary sources available at institutions like museums. The digital library makes texts more easily accessible than inter-library loans do.

The effort will allow students and scholars to obtain documents quickly and efficiently. Of course, one could object that going digital may deter people away from physical texts or lead them to undervalue owning print books. But such concerns are not terribly relevant. The project is aimed at providing primary sources such as letters and other short documents rather than whole books.

The Digital Public Library is, at the moment, funded through donations. The National Endowment for the Humanities, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Knight Foundation have all contributed. Organizations contributing information are not expected to assist financially, which is a wise decision. If participating organizations were expected to donate financially, it would probably deter many institutions who would otherwise want to participate. But sustainability may become a problem for the project if it depends solely upon philanthropy.

The library has not officially opened yet, so the benefits it offers scholars are limited at the moment. But the project will be functional by the end of April. The success of this endeavor will depend upon the number of universities and organizations willing to participate. More participation means more information available. Hopefully, as the program gains prominence, more institutions like the University will become involved.

Fariha Kabir is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Wednesdays.

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