Dan Cohen ’90

To explain what the Digital Public Library of America is, Dan Cohen ’90, the DPLA’s founding executive director, also explains what it is not. It’s not a replacement for your local public library, he says, where 80 percent of the books that circulate were published recently. It won’t provide a public gathering place or lend your kid a bedtime story.

What it does is knit together the holdings of American libraries, archives, and museums into a single collection that is searchable and ­accessible through the DPLA website ( 

DPLA partner institutions such as the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the New York Public Library, and Harvard have shared portions of their catalogs and conformed the item descriptions, such as subject headings and summaries, to a standard format. A user who searches at for, say, Jackie Robinson can view photographs from the National Portrait Gallery, the summary of a three-part 1987 documentary from Boston’s public-television station, and Robinson’s request to retire from active military duty from the National Archives.

Search results show item descriptions and thumbnail images, if available, along with a link to the catalog entry from the institution that owns the item’s physical version. Users can download or view items without ­copyright restrictions, and even if they can’t view copyrighted items, they at least know that they exist and where they are located. 

“What we’re looking at is a giant site of open access to a wide range of content,” Cohen says, citing the artworks, photographs, diaries, letters, books, and other cultural-heritage objects available at the website, which went live on April 18. “When people start using the site,” he says, “they’ll find riveting, unique content.” The site includes ­exhibitions, including one (at launch) about the history of American activism.

DPLA users can conduct research in many special-collection archives simultaneously, where previously they would work piecemeal with dozens of individual collections. 

To help launch the DPLA, a non­profit organization, Cohen moved to Boston, leaving his job at George Mason University, where recently he had been promoted to full professor in the history and art history department. For more than a decade, he has worked in the field of digital humanities and digital history, co-founding a digital archive of Sept. 11 documents and images, helping to ­create the researchers’ browser plug-in Zotero, and co-authoring the book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web

He hopes to continue to expand the DPLA by partnering with more institutions. “It was quite something for me to jump off and do this,” he says. “But this is the biggest digital humanities project there is.”