Digital wealth: comparing national digital libraries

On April 13, 2013 the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) was launched, an initiative that brings together digitized sources from a number of cultural institutions in the United States. In November 2012 the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB) started which combines the digital collections of over 2,000 institutions in Germany. The DDB is still in its beta-version. A Wealth of Knowledge is the motto of the DPLA. In this post I will try to make a comparison between the new American and German national digital libraries. For this purpose I will look both at rather random chosen subjects, and also at specific subjects with a link to legal history. How rich are both initiatives? Do these two new digital libraries compare favorably with other national digital libraries? Actually it is already interesting to look how many comparable initiatives exist worldwide. A number of them is mentioned on my own webpage for digital libraries. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell a national library portal apart from a general search portal or a national portal for digitized cultural heritage.

The limits of comparison

Logo Digital Public Library of America

Perhaps it wise to start here with a Dutch proverb, je moet geen appels met peren vergelijken, do not compare apples with pears, in other words, don’t compare incomparable things. Each of the digital portals and national digital libraries has its own history, background and very different cooperating partners. In my view it is not unimportant to bear in mind this when I assess the qualities of the DPLA and the DDB. I do not want to judge them, but solely to put the efforts behind both libraries in perspective.

The first impression of the website of the Digital Public Library of America is colourful and inviting. A rolling banner shows an impressive array of beautiful images and photographs of important people and events. Visitors of the website can immediately starting looking at information for particular locations, dates and years. The exhibitions section brings you quickly to a number of themes. For legal history I would like to single out Indomitable spirits: Prohibition in the United States. Below the motto A Wealth of Knowledge you can enter a free text search. The DPLA gives prominent space to its tweets, a news section and its apps, alas not yet the applications to use on smartphones to search its contents, but two separate search interfaces. One of the apps enables searching in both the DPLA and Europeana. I will include this double search app and Europeana, too, in my comparison. For brevity’s sake I will not discuss here the Library Observatory with a more abstract presentation of the search interfaces of contributing institutions.

A first hesitation occurs when you notice no less than three horizontal menus to navigate the DPLA portal. The uppermost menu is definitely more concerned with the background, and perhaps you will scarcely need it. For navigation a site map would be helpful, also when facing the multiple browse and search options, the choice in the presentation of results and the way to filter them. In one of the new items you can read in small print that the DPLA is launched as a beta-version.

Engraving of Aaron Burr

Engraving of Aaron Burr – Enoch Gridley after John Vanderlyn, c. 1801 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

How to probe faithfully the quality of any meta-catalogue or portal to cultural heritage? In my view both well-known matters and rather randomly chosen examples will help clarifying this matter. As for the random example, I will choose subjects and themes which just happened to be within my view these days. At his blog Appealingly Brief Dan Klau wrote on April 18, 2013 a posting on Aaron Burr (1756-1836), the vice-president who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, and the ancestor of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the endless speech used to stop senators from voting on bills and other proposals. Until now the filibuster figured on my blog only in his original form as a pirate, and thus I am happy to welcome his namesake!

The DPLA finds 20 results on Aaron Burr. Not one of them is directly connected with the filibuster, but more with the conspiracy for which Burr was indicted on November 25, 1806, and with Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Kentucky, a place visited by Burr. I found just one image of Burr himself. The double app for the DPLA and Europeana, too, brings 20 results from the DPLA, and 3 digitized books in Europeana. It is the constellation of holding institutions in the DPLA that surprises me, and their content. The search term filibuster gives me just six results, all of them cartoons from the twentieth century. No doubt the cultural institutions that cooperate in the DPLA hold great treasures, but you would expect results from digital collections at Ivy League universities, and from libraries such as the New York Public Library, the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Boston Public Library, although this library is present as a general partner in the Digital Commonwealth portal of cultural institutions in Massachusetts, a portal linked to the DPLA. As for now only the NYPL and Harvard Library already participate in the DPLA. In the digital gallery of the NYPL I found 57 images concerned with Aaron Burr. It seems that you cannot search yet all digital collections of Harvard Library in one search action at its website.

At present it seems the DPLA has enlisted the services of only a few major institutions, among them The Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Searching the Smithsonian collections for Burr yields more than 200 results. Looking for Burr on the website of the NARA will easily bring you 75 results. Clearly not of all of them connect immediately to digitized materials, but still the difference is very large. Somehow the aggregating process behind the DPLA is not working as completely and correctly as possible. However, the DPLA is helpful in another way: when you click on More subjects you will find a nice overview of associated themes. For Burr the filibuster is missing among these proposed subjects.

Culture and knowledge

Logo Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

The second library portal in my comparison is the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB). At its launch in November 2012 only a beta-version became visible, thus inviting criticism. The first impression of the DDB is austere, a white background with only a search interface, a slide show with just six pictures, and two clear menus. A sitemap seems at first superfluous, but with a view to the future it is wise to include it already. The language of the search interface can be switched to German or English. Below the general free text search field you can click on Advanced search where you will find initially find just two search fields. However, you can add search fields at will, choose from ten categories, and set the character of a boolean search on “AND”or “OR”. The link to institutions brings you to a map of Germany and a search interface to filter for archives, libraries, museums, research institutions, media and monument protection. At present nearly 2,000 German institutions contribute to the DDB.

The Grimm brothers

The Grimm brothers, drawing by Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1843 – Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen – image Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

How to test the qualities of the DBB in a fair and reliable way? 150 years ago Jacob Grimm died, the eldest of the Grimm brothers. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) was not only responsible for the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812) – the fairy tales had their own bicentennial last year; a digital version of the first edition is present at the Deutsches Textarchiv – and with his brother for the Deutsches Wörterbuch, but published also a number of works which touch upon legal history, starting perhaps with a famous article ‘Von der Poesie im Recht’, Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft 2 (1816) 25-99, on the poetry of the law, and editions such as the texts in Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1834) and the Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer (first edition in two volumes, Göttingen 1828).

Just entering “Jacob Grimm” in the DDB gives you already more than 200 results, with 80 images of either Jacob Grimm or both him and his brother Wilhelm. You will find the first three volumes (A to Forsche) of the Deutsches Wörterbuch. The DDB does not bring you to a digitized version of the 1816 article, online in the digital library for German legal journals of the nineteenth century at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. The DDB does contain the Reinhart Fuchs from 1834, and a letter on the subject of this book on several medieval versions of the Ysengrinus story by Grimm to the philologist Karl Lachmann, Sendschreiben an Karl Lachmann von Jacob Grimm über Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1840). The DDB lists several digital copies of the 1828 and 1854 editions of the Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer. Twice it is stated the first edition appeared in Leipzig, but the title pages of both volumes of this edition mention Göttingen. The error is due to the source of the meta-data on the digitized copy in question, in this case the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich.

With Grimm I choose an example from the very heart of German romanticism and scholarship. The formal end of the German Holy Roman Empire came in 1803 with the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, a decision of the German Reichstag at Regensburg. One of its consequences was the end of the secular power of a number of German ecclesiastical institutions over large territories, and the secularisation of all possessions of German monasteries. Many libraries were torn apart and ended in the holdings of new large libraries such as the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. By some German scholars 1803 has been described as a more decisive turn in German history than the French invasion by Napoleon. The DDB shows 106 results concerning this decision, not just books, but also links to archival records. Alas the links to the Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart are only links to the online finding aids, not to the archival records themselves. When searching for Jacob Grimm at Europeana you get literally hundreds results. A search for the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss as a subject brings at Europeana only four results, but they happen to be the digitized appendices to the decision of the Reichstag with detailed information about institutions and territories. These volumes have been digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. If you search for titles with the same word, you get seven results, again from the same library.

Promises to be fulfilled…

How to assess the results presented in the DPLA and the DDB? Even when bearing in mind we have only been in touch with the beta-version of both digital portals a feeling of disappointment is not far away. For all its colourful and alluring aspects the actual search results at the DPLA are meagre. When you try to search for the same subjects in the online collection databases of some of the major participating institutions you get more results than are at presented harvested by or aggregated at the DPLA. The presence of less well-known digital libraries in the DPLA is a promise for the future. It is good that the nets of the DPLA are not only cast in familiar fishing waters. No doubt the number of participating institutions will steadily grow. In itself it is a strength that this portal does transcend the borders and limits of the traditional library. Images, sound recordings, archival records and artefacts are welcome in the DPLA without any prejudice. The side effect is, however, that books are not as prominently present as you would wish them to be. Some subjects are distinctly nearly absent in the DPLA. The last thing I expected to find in the DPLA among the few results for decretals was a digitized copy at the Brigham Young University of a rare edition of a medieval decretal taken from the edition of the Compilationes antiquae (Lerida 1576) by Antonio Agustín.

The DDB is a bit of a paradox. I have never seen before a digital portal with nearly 2,000 cooperating institutions behind it. I had expected more and more interesting search results for the examples I have chosen here. They stem from a pivotal period in German history and culture. It is not very reassuring to find that searches elsewhere, for example at Europeana and in the collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek yield more results than at the DDB. Especially when you realize German regional meta-catalogues, and at the top of them the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog, help you to track books, including digitized copies, in a very quick and reliable way, the question arises what the aims and goals of the DDB are. Is one it aims to do better than the BAM-Portal? The BAM-Portal finds more results, but on closer inspection only a portion of them concerns digitized materials.

How do the DPLA and DDB compare to similar national and international initiatives? Europeana came into view here already several times. A search for Aaron Burr at the European Library brings you 35 digital results. I found for the filibuster 68 results, with just 5 digital resources. Among the results you can filter for disciplines, which is helpful to find the right kind of filibuster. A similar search for the decision in 1803 to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire yields 23 digital results, with again mostly items digitized at Munich.

Worldwide several library portals exists which combine the forces of several national or even foreign collections to present their digitized resources. Here just a few examples: Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, increasingly aggregates also digitized books from other libraries, for example at Lyons and Toulouse. The Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura is an Italian initiative which combines the forces of a number of thematic and special collections. In Mexico a number of institutions work together in the Biblioteca Digital Mexicana. Fifty digital libraries in Poland can be searched using the portal of the Federacja Bibliotek Cyfrowech. The Biblioteca Virtual Miguel Cervantes is a portal of several major Spanish institutions. For Catalonia the portal Memòria Digital de Catalunya brings you to even more institutions. In the portal Digital NZ – Á-Tihi Aotearoa a number of cultural institutions in New Zealand bring digitized collections together.

One of the main factors for the success of digital library portals is the way data and meta-data are harvested and aggregated. In countries where many different digitization standards prevailed it is surely more difficult to create a successful portal website. The Polish consortium of digital libraries unites institutions which use exactly the same system. Efforts to create a national portal can diminish the financial means for participating institutions to digitize materials that you would like to find also at the national level. The launch of the DPLA took place in Boston. It was no coincidence that I mentioned the position of the Boston Public Library. Its participation in the Massachusetts portal Digital Commonwealth surely poses both possibilities and limits.

Not the least factor in the success of digital portals is sticking to international standards and at the same time creating a tool that is useful for users with different interests and backgrounds. Some portals might in fact be closer to a kind of national showcase than a research tool that fits the needs of scholars from various disciplines. Sometimes it is clear you will start your search elsewhere: for digitized historical maps a first orientation is given at such portals as David Rumsey’sOld Maps Online and Archival Maps, and a second major resource to use for this purpose is the GEO-LEO-portal of the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg and the university library at Göttingen. In my view the DPLA and DDB should get the benefit of doubt. It is clear that they do not yet fulfill all high expectations, but at the same time it is wise to realize nobody would see them as the one and only gateway to digital resources in a particular country. Hopefully constructive comments will be more helpful than harsh early criticisms to create the first complete releases of the DPLA and DDB more satisfactorily. These promising portals deserve a second chance.

A postscript

The portal to historical maps of David Rumsey will shortly join the forces of the DPLA. Among the European portals I could have mentioned the Spanish portal Hispana.

6 thoughts on “Digital wealth: comparing national digital libraries

  1. ladislaus

    The cataloging of digitized copies of old German magazines is such a mess in all digital libraries that it is ususally a good idea to search in de.wikisource for the name of the magazine (at least if you know the relevant year or issue number). It helps saving a lot of time (if the magazine is indeed listed there, which many are). I agree with your observations of the DDB. At the present state, this is highly superfluous, doesn’t give relevant or interesting results all too often (let alone “complete” results), and can hardly be used in any fruitful way at all.

    Reply
    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Mr. Agenjo, thanks for your comment! Of course I could have included the Hispana portal, which in my view works pretty good, but in the end I choose here for mentioning the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel Cervantes. I did not want to give a complete overview of similar portals worldwide. The existence of Hispana side by side with another major portal in one country indicates there can be space and enough reason for two projects at the national level. In view of rapidly developing standards it is perhaps even wiser to try to realize things in different ways, but unnecessary spending of money is always a danger in such situations…

      Reply
  2. Samuel Klein

    Thank you for this thoughtful review and comparison. It is most helpful as the DPLA grows into a more complete service. We are also doing such comparisons ourselves – which is why the Europeana comparison search is one of the first apps developed.

    Reply
    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Mr. Klein, thanks for your comment! Today I found out about the discussion list for the DPLA, and I noticed the forums on the website. I do wish that people will tell the team behind the DPLA about their experiences so far, and that they will come with constructive proposals and ideas.

      Reply

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