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Libraries swapping stacks for bytes

The digitization of collections from American libraries, archives, and museums took center stage at Blackman Auditorium last week, when Northeastern co-hosted the inaugural DPLAfest to recognize the Digital Public Library of America.

DPLAfest was co-hosted by the DPLA, the Boston Public Library, the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Launched in April, DPLA strives to bring digitized versions of collections from universities (including Northeastern), libraries, and public organizations to the masses in a single online portal. To date, the online library has digitized 5 million books, works of art, and records of America’s heritage from 1,100 institutions across the country.

“We have made tremendous progress, but we feel there are still gaps across the board,” executive director Dan Cohen said in his opening remarks on Friday. “We are really proud of the diversity of the institutions that are contributing. But we want to do better, and we can do better.”

The event kicked off a daylong series of workshops at Northeastern as well as Simmons College aimed at generating collaborative discussions about digitalization and DPLA’s future endeavors. It brought together librarians, archivists, museum professionals, publishers and authors, teachers, students, and others.

For its part, Northeastern University Libraries is building its own collection of online e-books, journals, and periodicals. For example, the number of e-books has increased from 8,400 in 2006 to nearly 400,000 this year. Last year, Snell Library also launched the Digital Media Commons, an innovative media lab and digital creativity center where students and faculty can utilize a range of technologies. This semester, a novel 3-D printing studio will also open in the DMC with consumer- and professional-grade 3-D modeling and creation technology. The DMC’s expansion is expected to completed later this fall.

In her opening remarks on Friday, Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, praised the partnership between DPLA and Northeastern. “It seemed right away a good fit for our institutions,” she explained. “A digital library developing a physical foothold in the city of Boston, and a brick and mortar college and university committed to doing pioneering work in networking science, computational social science, and the digital humanities.”

Northeastern is also establishing its own leadership in digital humanities research, which applies computer and network science techniques to digitized texts. For example, the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks—the university’s research-based center for Digital Humanities and Computational Social Science—supports faculty research, trains students in digital humanities and computer science skills, and sponsors events that advance the discussion of technology, teaching, and research at Northeastern. One of the center’s current projects is Our Marathon, a digital archive of stories, photos, videos, social media, and other materials related to the tragic Boston Marathon bombings.

English professor and NULab co-director Elizabeth Maddock Dillon congratulated DPLA for not only preserving the past, but for allowing people to think in new and productive ways about the past and the future.

“Digital Humanities involves using new technologies to think about very old and enduring questions, such as the relationship between the past and the present,” Dillon said.