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Free database offers access to archives

Images from the Boston Public Library available on the new database include a 1934 photo of a fire at Fenway Park and Babe Ruth in his Red Sox uniform from 1915.
Images from the Boston Public Library available on the new database include Babe Ruth in his Red Sox uniform from 1915.Boston Public Library Print Department

Millions of digitized books, pictures, and manuscripts from the nation’s top public and academic libraries are now available in one spot. It isn’t Amazon or Google, and it’s free.

The privately funded Digital Public Library of America was launched Thursday and provides users with access to the digital archives of institutions ranging from national the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution to local historical societies.

Among 2.4 million works, visitors to the site, dp.la, can find a Boston Public Library picture of Babe Ruth in a Red Sox jersey taken in 1915 or more than 32,000 maps from collector David Rumsey in San Francisco.

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“What’s wonderful about digitization and this library is for the first time this stuff can get out into the public,” said Dan Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit created to oversee the digital library. “People don’t normally have access to a lot of the content.”

The project began two years ago under the guidance of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, with more than $5 million in funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York.

The goal is to create a vast, open-access online network of items from American libraries, universities, archives, and museums to advance the spread of information and knowledge.

“It’s a gold mine for students, teachers, researchers, or anyone in the public that is curious about their own roots,” said Doron Weber, Sloan Foundation vice president of programs.

Dozens of the nation’s leading scholars and librarians have helped steer the project, and more than 500 institutions are providing content. The ARTstor , for example, submitted digital images of 10,000 pieces.

Google Inc. made a similar, perhaps more grandiose, attempt to create an electronic database of all the world’s books in 2011. But a federal judge halted the company’s efforts, saying it would give the search engine giant an unfair hold on digital copies and violate copyright laws.

To avoid a similar fate, Cohen said his database allows viewers to download only content that it has permission to reproduce or is not covered by copyright. Protected items, such as a picture of a bed George Washington slept in at the Taft Tavern, are listed in the database and when users click to view the images they are redirected to the owner’s website.

Still, Cohen said the digital library and its partners are exploring legal ways to get at least one copy of as many materials as possible, even protected pieces, into the digital library.

“An important part of being an American citizen is being able to access materials about our history and culture for free,” he said.

Now software developers and others can download and use much of the content into their own projects, such as smartphone applications or websites, for free.

“This is not only an amazing portal to the riches of America’s libraries, but it is something people can build upon,” Cohen said.

Most of the participating institutions provided works that are already in electronic form. Cohen and the nonprofit are gathering funding to digitize more items and continue the database. The collection so far doesn’t even scratch the surface of the project’s potential, considering that partners such as the Smithsonian have more than 130 million items in inventory — only 1 percent of which are on display an its museums at a given time.

“I would love at this time next year to have 10 times more items,” Cohen said. “I think it’s possible. It will be an unparalleled single place to go for this content.”

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