Making local history digital, searchable and accessible

Photo Credit: Flickr user exostratics

Today, Knight Foundation is excited to announce $1 million in support for the Digital Public Library of America, a groundbreaking project that will make our country’s local archives digital, searchable and freely accessible.

This project is working towards the day that users will be able to search any topic – be it the Civil War or the New Deal – and immediately pull up information including pictures, videos, oral histories, manuscripts and more from collections across the country.

They’re starting with seven pilot sites – with libraries and digital collaborative in Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah participating as “service” hubs.

What most excites me though is that the project is going to involve communities in creating content for their archives, whether through giving context to or tagging content, or actually bringing in items to scan and record. It’s a great way to help accelerate libraries’ evolution from information warehouses to true digital community centers and content creators, a key focus of Knight Foundation’s Library Initiative.

Organizers launched this project because they began to see a paradox emerge: In this era when people expect information at their fingertips, our local collections that are so rich in history and cultural heritage are increasingly inaccessible because of budget cuts and staff reductions.

Some big institutions are digitizing their collections and making them available, but at this point that’s an option only for the largest and best funded. Even then, their systems aren’t designed to work with others, so that users can simultaneous search archives across the country. In essence, they have created isolated islands of information.

This led 30 leaders from the world of libraries, museums, humanities and law to come together to try to address these challenges.

With initial funding from the Sloan and Arcadia foundations, hundreds have been working on taking this from concept to reality during the past two years.

Knight’s funding, along with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services, will build the technological foundation to connect the seven regional hubs – the first physical locations of this ambitious project – and begin delivering services to libraries and archives. 

These hubs will create the agreements between participating organizations and coordinate efforts within their states.

They will provide direct services too. For example, if a library wants to start digitizing items but lacks the equipment or staff, the hubs will digitize up to 5,000 items for them. They will send a metadata “geek squad” to teach the staff how code and categorize the digitized materials. No place to store all the new digital data? The hubs will store it for you and provide you with a link to put on your website.

As cool as all this is, it’s not what really caught our eye about this grant. This project is not just about technology and data, it’s about how these institutions use it to enable interaction between community members, professionals and materials of local and national relevance.

Look for more in April 2013, when the project will make hundreds of thousands of items first available to the public online.

By Jorge A. Martinez, director/IT at Knight Foundation

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