DPLA: DH in the public sphere

I attended the DPLA Midwest this past Friday, and it was an invigorating new perspective on issues I’m trying to explore in the digital humanities. The two-day meeting brought together librarians, academics, non-profit leaders, and other interested parties in the Midwest region to talk about the progress of the DPLA and its imminent launch in April.  It was quite exciting to hear about all the progress made thus far toward making the DPLA a reality:  the impressive support from a wide variety of funders and leaders in the library, government, and nonprofit communities; the innovative projects at the digital libraries at the University of Minnesota Libraries and University of Kentucky Library, which will be two of the six service hubs that will collate digital materials and services that feed into the DPLA; and the metadata and storage repository that will be the main platform.

For me, however, the most interesting discussions arose around the issue of access and use of the DPLA’s digital collections:  In digital humanities, it’s rather obvious what people will do with digital materials.  They data mine thousands of texts, annotate images, build databases, and/or apply geolocation to primary source material, among other endeavors.  But what will your next door neighbor do with a collection of 19th-century political pamphlets?  How will your grandfather use a selection of historic 1920s photographs?

Fortunately the DPLA doesn’t lack for answers:  All of the pilot service hubs are required to have public engagement and community outreach at the heart of their work (i.e., University of Minnesota’s focus on their collections in Native American cultures and engaging the local Native American communities); and the meeting participants contributed a number of insightful and innovative ideas on the implications of the DPLA for pedagogy and learning.  So I have no doubt that the DPLA will carve a path that connects communities to digital collections.  Nonetheless I think this is an issue that the digital humanities community also needs to consider in depth at some point:  Right now, the primary focus is evangelizing DH to our colleagues in academia, which makes sense with nature of scholarly communications, promotion and tenure, and the overall latest “crisis” that finds humanities disciplines seemingly in a precarious position on campuses nationwide.  But what does DH mean for our communities?

The crowdsourcing projects at University of Iowa Libraries and NYPL Labs suggest one way to generate connections to institutions’ digital collections; Google Ngrams captured quite a bit of interest; and the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, among others, has enabled people to find history of their hometowns and ancestors.  But in discussions with fellow participants at DPLA, we wondered if these “hooks” would have the sustaining power on par with anthologies of poetry or public theater, or if they were simply novelties for people to explore.  And we haven’t even begun to touch upon the issues surrounding the digital divide.

I’m not sure my ideas are coming out as clear as hoped, but in short, I don’t think it’s as simple as it may seem at first glance: I see DH as having the potential on both ends of the spectrum–It could become a highly effective conduit for public humanities and translating humanities scholarship.  Or it could become a highly specialized branch or evolution of humanities scholarship that remains incomprehensible to the masses.

I, for one, am eager to see how the DPLA develops as an authoritative digital resource for the public square, and I hope that it will provide insights on how DH can forge deeper linkages to society at large.