The Digital Public Library of America, Me, and You

Twenty years ago Roy Rosenzweig imagined a compelling mission for a new institution: “To use digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a part of that mission for over twelve years, at what became the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, with last five and a half years as director.

Today I am announcing that I will be leaving the center, and my professorship at George Mason University, the home of RRCHNM, but I am not leaving Roy’s powerful vision behind. Instead, I will be extending his vision—one now shared by so many—on a new national initiative, the Digital Public Library of America. I will be the founding executive director of the DPLA.

The DPLA, which you will be hearing much more about in the coming months, will be connecting the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums so that the public can access all of those collections in one place; providing a platform, with an API, for others to build creative and transformative applications upon; and advocating strongly for a public option for reading and research in the twenty-first century. The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country, but instead will extend their commitment to the public sphere, and provide them with an extraordinary digital attic and the technical infrastructure and services to deliver local cultural heritage materials everywhere in the nation and the world. DPLA_logo The DPLA has been in the planning stages for the last few years, but is about to spin out of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and move from vision to reality. It will officially launch, as an independent nonprofit, on April 18 at the Boston Public Library. I will move to Boston with my family this summer to lead the organization, which will be based there. It is such a great honor to have this opportunity.

Until then I will be transitioning from my role as director of RRCHNM, and my academic life at Mason. Everything at the center will be in great hands, of course; as anyone who visits the center immediately grasps, it is a highly collaborative and nonhierarchical place with an amazing staff and an especially experienced and innovative senior staff. They will continue to shape “the future the past,” as Roy liked to put it. I will miss my good friends at the center, but I still expect to work closely with them, since so many critical software initiatives, educational projects, and digital collections are based at RRCHNM. A search for a new director will begin shortly. I will also greatly miss my colleagues in Mason’s wonderful Department of History and Art History.

At the same time, I look forward to collaborating with new friends, both in the Boston office of the DPLA and across the United States. The DPLA is a unique, special idea—you don’t get to build a massive new library every day. It is apt that the DPLA will launch at the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, with those potent words carved into stone above its entrance: “Free to all.” The architect Charles Follen McKim rightly called it “a palace for the people,” where anyone could enter to learn, create, and be entertained by the wonders of books and other forms of human expression.

We now have the chance to build something like this for the twenty-first century—a rare, joyous possibility in our too-often cynical age. I hope you will join me in this effort, with your ideas, your contributions, your energy, and your public spirit.

Let’s build the Digital Public Library of America together.

Join the Conversation


  1. So excited that someone with a reputation for cross-disciplinary collaboration, a love and understanding of libraries/archives/museums, a large social media presence, and experience in teaching and learning is taking this on. Plus you bought me a beer at THATCamp CNHM, so you must be a good guy.

  2. Many congrats, Dan — this is wonderful news. Can’t wait to see how it all comes together!

  3. Congratulations Dan! I’m as guilty as anyone for that cynicism you mention. Creating the space, tools, data, and above all shared expertise to help libraries, archives and museums work with the grain of the Web instead of against it is a major and subtly complex undertaking … but I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job. I want my cynicism to be proven wrong!

  4. WoW. Congratulations and good luck. Given your success in growing CHNM and ability to ride the wave, this marks a great start for the DPLA.

  5. Congratulations on the new position! And welcome to Boston (I write from Shanghai, but it’s still where my bed is!). I’m so excited to see Boston grow into a hub for digital new frontiers!

  6. Having marvelled at what you, Roy R., and the others at CHNM have achieved over the years in the field of digital historiography, for want of a better word, I can only say – wow!
    Wish you all the best in your new job and look forward to reading about more digital exploits in the coming years!

Leave a comment