Closer Readings Commentary

Digital Public Library of America for Educators

Franky Abbott is an ACLS Public Fellow working on outreach, education, and content-related projects for DPLA. She has worked at a variety of academic institutions on digital programs and projects and as a 10–12 grade English teacher and college-level instructor. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Emory University.

The Digital Public Library of America is a free online library that provides access to books, photographs, maps, audiovisual materials, and more from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States. At its one-year anniversary this week, DPLA includes 7 million items from more than 1,100 U.S. based partners. It is a one-stop shop where teachers and students can easily find primary sources and other materials from a wide range of institutions, from small historical societies to large national archives. All items have been curated and vetted by cultural heritage professionals. No registration or subscription is required.

DPLA aims to expand the realm of openly available materials and make these riches more easily discovered and more widely usable in three ways:

  • A portal for discovery. DPLA delivers digital resources to students, teachers, scholars, and the public, wherever they may be in America. Browse partner content using a map, timeline, virtual bookshelf, and exhibitions. Search using facets to refine results by date, location, type, language, subject, and more.
  • A platform opening our cultural heritage. With an application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, DPLA can be used by software developers, researchers, and student coders to create novel environments for learning, tools for discovery, and engaging apps. Its growing app library includes apps for visual exploration and serendipitous discovery, apps that integrate DPLA content into library systems and other online resources, and mobile apps that show resources related to the user’s geographic location.
  • An advocate for a strong public option in the twenty-first century. For most of our nation’s history, the ability to access materials for free through public libraries has been a central part of our culture, producing generations of avid readers and a knowledgeable, engaged citizenry. DPLA works, along with like-minded organizations, to ensure that this critical, open intellectual landscape remains vibrant and broad. DPLA seeks to multiply openly accessible materials to strengthen the public option that libraries represent in their communities.

Uses in the classroom

DPLA offers teachers movement toward educational goals that align with Common Core State Standards: helping students build digital literacy and 21st-century skills and teaching students to work critically with primary sources. It represents the kind of online resource that students will increasingly navigate as they grow as researchers. As such, it helps refine their critical searching skills, helps them to better assess the relevance of resources and to develop an understanding of how to interpret contextual record information and build citations. A search for “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” for example, will yield more than 2,277 results from 100 institutions in a variety of formats: text, image, sound, and moving image. Students can use a faceted search to focus on specific aspects of MLK’s life and work. For example, they can use the map feature to identify items related to MLK’s birthplace—Atlanta, Georgia—and the timeline to highlight items from 1968, the year of his assassination. DPLA provides tutorials and help with searching, browsing, and the creation of accounts in order to save and share lists, both privately and publicly. These activities help students to focus search results and research questions for a particular research topic. A search activity can be completed alone or within a larger project to align with Common Core Anchor Standards for English Language Arts in Writing such as: 7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation and 8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Primary sources

Use DPLA to tap an abundance of primary sources. You can find online exhibitions that tell the story of a significant topic or event by pairing readings with relevant primary sources. Here is a sampling of popular topics in history/social studies and science:

Research and reading activities incorporate these exhibitions and align with Common Core State Anchor Standards for English Language Arts Literacy in Reading such as 7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively as well as words and 9. Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Exhibitions offer a curated approach, but DPLA content can offer a wealth of other primary source possibilities for teachers and students searching and browsing the collection. A small fraction of the available examples that could help meet similar CCSS objectives include:

Opportunities for Educator Involvement

DPLA’s easy-to-install search widget can be used to add a DPLA search box to any course, library, or other school website.

For educators engaging students in coding activities, DPLA offers instructions and support for work with the DPLA API for app building.

The DPLA Community Reps program recruits representatives from the public to work with the project in their local communities. The first class of reps—100 reps from 36 states and 2 international countries—includes a strong cohort of teachers, school librarians, media specialists, and curriculum developers who believe in DPLA’s open mission and its value as a resource. These reps use the project with classes of students and share it with colleagues, and then provide the organization with use cases and feedback. This supports DPLA’s plans to develop future education partnerships and design new education resources.