New Digital Library Launches: Internet + Ancient Library of Alexandria

The new archive launched at the New York Public Library today, after the planned event at the Boston Public Library had to be moved

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The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a non-profit online service, was launched earlier today. So what exactly does this service—years in the making—offer? According to author Doron Weber, it’s “as if the Ancient Library of Alexandria had met the Modern World Wide Web and digitized America for the benefit of all.”

If that sounds like a lofty description, it’s perhaps appropriate for the organization’s lofty goals. The beta version of the “discovery portal” was rolled out this morning at the New York Public Library, after the larger launch that had been planned to take place at the Boston Public Library was cancelled due to the events at this week’s Boston Marathon. (Weber, who is also VP at the Sloan Foundation, one of the DPLA’s funders, was on hand at the event.)

But online access to library materials—even thought it’s neatly sorted with shiny-looking exhibitions and timelines and maps—isn’t actually the truly modern thing here.

(MORE: What Was the Most Complained-About Library Book of 2012?)

The Digital Public Library provides searchable access to digitized materials from archives, libraries and museums—but also makes its data available for software developments to create apps using the materials. The potential for those future developments is the best part, said John Palfrey, the president of the DPLA’s board, in a statement:

The most exciting idea is that we cannot begin to imagine the extraordinary things that librarians and their many partners can accomplish with this open platform and such extraordinarily rich materials, from so many institutions large and small, together and at the ready. We will create new knowledge together and make accessible, free to all, information that people need in order to thrive in a democracy.

Although the materials in the library are perhaps the biggest draw for now, the potential for new ways of using them is the most modern thing of all. Non-interactive information isn’t exactly on the cutting edge—so here’s a library where you can interact. But don’t worry, book lovers: you still can’t write in the books,