Both summer reading and serious scholarly research could get a lot easier with the Digital Public Library of America. That visionary project has received $1 million to help make library materials freely available online to anyone.
The open-access digital library plans to use the $1 million award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to build a single "sky-way with global access ramps" that reaches digital library collections across the nation. The project would also free up resources for local libraries to focus on community needs and activities catering to neighborhood kids and adults.
"The Digital Public Library of America is an ambitious effort to create a national digital library system that will make the cultural heritage of the United States available to anyone with access to the Internet," said Jim Leach, chairman of NEH.
The digital library faces huge challenges in giving everyone equal access — people speaking different languages, netizens with faster or slower Internet connections, and even the visually impaired. A mobile-friendly version would also make the library accessible to the growing swarm of smartphone Internet surfers.
Any plan for the digital public library must also figure out possible copyright issues if it wants to lend materials not in the public domain, Leach said.
Online library collections in Europe and Asia provide some ideas for how much the U.S. digital public library costs. The Europeana project has operating costs of about $5 million to $10 million each year, but that figure could rise by as much as ten times depending on the amount of text, video or audio that requires digital scanning.
The National Digital Library of South Korea represents another high-tech model for the U.S. with a physical building located in Seoul that has touch-screen tabletops and a computer lab accessible in five languages. The $112 million facility opened with 390,000 digitized books, and plans to expand its collection at a cost of $1.2 million per year.
Dreams for the U.S. digital public library remain far from certain, but the $1 million award goes a long way toward getting beyond the talking stage and pushing it closer to reality.