Modern Alexandria

I’ve rhapsodized about libraries before, but the launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) on April 18 deserves independent tribute. The brainchild of countrywide scholars and librarians, the DPLA has been called the modern day library of Alexandria. The site operates as a portal through which users can access all types of media (books, photographs, videos, audio recordings) that schools and museums around the country have already digitized. The Smithsonian Institute, the New York Public Library, the National Archives, and Harvard University are among the partners whose digital content is available through the site.

Impressed? I was too and decided to take a look.

The homepage is colorful, well organized, and easy to navigate. Just as a trial, I typed “Indian Boarding School” into the search field. A list of 728 holdings flashed onto the screen. A side bar on the left allowed me to refine my search based on several criteria (format, date, location, owning institution, etc.) I selected images from 1875-1910, whittling the results down to 365. I clicked a picture of boarding school dormitory and was taken to the high-resolution, full size image on the Minnesota digital library website.

Reservation Boarding School Dormitory from the Minnesota Digital Library

Reservation Boarding School Dormitory from the Minnesota Digital Library

Another search feature is available on the homepage is Timeline. Since much of my story takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, I scrolled over the horizontal line of dates (which stretches back all they way to 1004 AD) to 1906. Twelve thousand four hundred and thirty items were attached to this year. When I filtered out everything except that pertaining to “Minnesota” I was left with 363 items including this image of a Minneapolis streetcar.

Streetcar 1906 from the Minnesota Digital Library

Streetcar 1906 from the Minnesota Digital Library

My last bit of exploring led me to the exhibitions page. Like walking through museum, this section presents information and images pertaining to a specific theme. Serendipitously, one of the seven exhibitions was entitled “History of Survivance: Upper Midwest 19th Century Native American Narratives”. The collection included pictures, maps, a pamphlet issued by the American Bible Society written in Dakota, images of hand-beaded bandolier bags and vests—all woven together with descriptive text.

American Bible Society Pamphlet written in the Dakota language from the Minnesota Digital Library

American Bible Society Pamphlet written in the Dakota language from the Minnesota Digital Library

For me, as a historical fiction writer, the DPLA is a runaway bestseller. But it’s not just a site for authors, or students, or historiographers. Anyone with a curious mind will revel in the site’s offerings. Give it a go and see for yourself.


11 thoughts on “Modern Alexandria

  1. Thank you for this incredible source of information. I’m researching for a book right now and it’s just what I need to keep going.

    • Is this the book we spoke about at the conference? Hope the DPLA has so good info for you. I know they’re in the process of adding more data, too. It’s nice to have one site with such a breadth of information. Can’t wait to read your work!

      • It is the same book. The working title is Mrs. Parsons, a historical figure who kept her past hidden. Hopefully, my literary shovel will uncover what’s been buried for so long.

  2. Well written Amanda. Thanks for info. You need to send that to some magazines -Parade in the Sunday paper comes to mind. Or AAA magazine or a history magazine etc.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this information! I would never have found it otherwise. I write historical fiction too and I’m so excited to see what the DPLA has to offer!

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