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US digital library in works

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 22, 2011

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A consortium of librarians and scholars from across the country, including faculty members from Harvard University, met yesterday in Washington to work on creating the proposed Digital Public Library of America, an online storehouse stocked with millions of digitized books, images, and video from the nation’s top public and academic libraries.

“Everybody will get to use it, and it will contain everything we can get our hands on,’’ said John Palfrey, faculty codirector of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which is home base for the digital library project.

Developers intend to launch a prototype of the service by April 2013. Their efforts will be supported by $5 million in grants from the philanthropies Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia Fund.

America’s digital library will be designed in collaboration with Europeana, a similar project being undertaken by the European Commission, to ensure each online library is compatible with the other.

Much of the information to be stored in the new library is available in digital form, but it is scattered among hundreds of public or academic libraries, or in specialized databases like the Internet Archive. In addition, hosting institutions have used different technical standards to digitize, catalog, and store their materials. The digital library project would standardize those efforts and make all materials available through a single online location. In addition, it would sponsor efforts to digitize the printed books, maps, and images held by major libraries so that those materials could be made available to online researchers around the world.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution are involved with the project, along with the Internet Archive, the Boston and New York public libraries, and academic libraries at Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University.

The digital library plan is reminiscent of efforts by Internet search giant Google Inc. to create a vast digital database of all the world’s books. That campaign was stymied earlier this year by a federal judge, who concluded that it would give Google an unfair monopoly on digital copies of many books, and that Google’s plan would violate copyright laws.

Palfrey said that for now, the digital library project will publish only files not covered by copyright. Google is working with the group to provide access to its huge database of noncopyrighted materials, he said. Eventually, it is hoped the digital library will be able to provide fee-based access to copyrighted items. “We’re going to respect copyright completely,’’ Palfrey said. “This is not a rogue project.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.