Accessing the Digital Public Library of America

Today, May 4, 2013 marks the sixth anniversary of what used to be the “Boles University Blog.”  That fine scholarship and research blog is now folded into this even finer, and richer, and deeper Boles Blogs Blog, and in celebration of promoting online pedagogy and in-person teaching, let’s take a look at the fascinating, and new, “Digital Public Library” of America! Here’s how the DPLA describes its mission:

The Digital Public Library of America brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world. It strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science. The DPLA aims to expand this crucial realm of openly available materials, and make those riches more easily discovered and more widely usable and used, through its three main elements.

I love the idea of all the artifacts and valuables from across America coming home, virtually, online to be shared and compared in real time via a single search portal.

I decided to try out the DPLA with a simple query for famous American Playwright Arthur Miller. Here’s the search string the site used to parse my want:

http://dp.la/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=arthur+miller

The results were pretty interesting. I was able to see this bust of the Playwright Arthur Miller. The full text of this research project Arthur C. Miller wrote in 1911 is dangerous, because while this is a proper “Arthur Miller” return, the Arthur Miller I want — “Arthur Asher Miller” — was born in 1915 and could not have written this paper.  As well, there’s also a famous American cinematographer named “Arthur C. Miller” who also appeared in the search returns quite a bit.

Students and researchers must keep in mind that their search terms are only as good as their narrowing and expansion of the topic.  I learned my generic “Arthur Miller” search on the DPLA was vast and way too general with millions of hits and returns.

I was presented with images of death certificates for a plethora of “Arthur Millers” who died long before my Arthur Miller passed in 2005.  Researcher beware!  Look, click and evaluate.

Here’s a fine painting of my Arthur Miller.  It is quite lifelike and beautiful.

The Digital Public Library of America is a tremendous research tool, but with access to great, unfiltered information, we must be smart enough, and disciplined enough, to evaluate every link and return to determine if the information is not just on topic or relevant — but is it even the right person?

10 comments

  • It sounds as though this should be a magnificent research tool . What a facinating journey you went on and how well you proved the old adage that a computer is only as good as a – the person who input the data and b the person using it.

    I think it is good peole have to be smart and do their research properly – computers tend in some cases to make things a little too easy.

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    • Yes, I was surprised that the DPLA tricked me early on with my “Arthur Miller” search. I guess the mainstream search engines sort of pre-guess you more likely mean “The Playwright” Arthur Miller, and present those returns first.

      On DPLA, there’s no such prediction filter, so the results are much more raw. I sort of favor that firehose result because there’s no software behind-the-scenes trying to guess what I really mean. You also have to pre-hone your search intentions “playwright arthur miller” is much better all around…

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      • It is interesting that we have a chance to use data in the raw and not prescreened and forcefed in one particular direction – just thinking back to the quarterlife crisis which is totally manufactured.

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        • That’s a good point. We have lost our ability to sift to find purpose and meaning. We want results presented to us as factual and unambiguous — but nothing in life is ever that way when it comes to dealing with intrigue and questioning.

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  • Emily Windram

    I often feel like I take the internet for granted or simply forget how powerful a tool it really is… the DPLA just reminded me of that fact. What a great database for anyone to sift through. I just hope that everyone else realizes the same thing that you did. I’m sure some people will take the lazy approach and just go with the first thing they see, like on Wikipedia.

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    • There are Apps that can access the DPLA database and help filter results, but what I like about directly searching on the site is that you don’t know precisely what you’ll get with a semi-generic search. Who would ever think a bust of Arthur Miller — The Playwright — would ever be one of the first returns in searching his name?

      I’ve never seen that bust before, and it was a surprise and a delight that Bing and Yahoo! and Google are incapable of now providing. The first thing I thought when I saw that bust was, “Where are his glasses?” Arthur Miller’s glasses were sort of hermetic and iconic. He’d play with them when he was speaking to you and them purposefully return them to his nose when he was finished.

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  • @David It is going to be a joy and or a nightmare weaving my way around and following the tangents – I love you found the amazing bust – then the Bee article ………… nice that another Arthur Miller will be remembered

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  • Gordon Davidescu

    I’m glad you wrote this because I didn’t know about the DPLA’s existence! Great tool — as long as it’s used carefully!

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