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Now, tech comes to the library. Buried in the archives of America's libraries are countless treasures - old papers, photos, public records - that create a vivid picture of our past. But finding what you're looking for isn't always easy. Libraries are now starting to put digital copies of those treasures online, but you may still need a search expert to find what you're looking for.
As part of our series on public libraries, NPR's Laura Sydell reports on a project that's meant to make things even easier by putting all that material on one site.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: As soon as the Digital Public Library of America launched in April, Lincoln Mullen started to use it. He's a graduate student at Brandeis University researching the history of religious conversion in the U.S. Mullen came across some records on the DPLA that aren't easy to find.
LINCOLN MULLEN: Documents about slaveholders and the conversion of some of their slaves.
SYDELL: Mullen says the DPLA uncovered handwritten letters by a slave owner, William H.W. Barnwell, in which Barnwell discussed religious instruction to slaves and how the North misunderstood the South in these matters. The records were in the digital archives of the College of Charleston. Mullen says it would have been really hard to find these documents by doing a general Internet search.
MULLEN: It's hard to know, apart from sort of really lots and lots of browsing, where those collections are available. They're all fragmented in so many different places.
SYDELL: The DPLA made it possible to search one place. Right now, there are only about four million items on the site, but it's growing by around 500,000 new books and documents a month, as more libraries from around the country come on board.
I'm walking into the back rooms of San Francisco's main public library where technicians are busy scanning books, photos and newspaper clips to be put online. Susan Goldstein, the city's archivist, says right now they're dealing books from the late 1800s.
SUSAN GOLDSTEIN: We have these huge scrapbooks that came to us from the police department, and a lot of them are full of mold. So we're scanning them because it's, you know, it's preservation.
SYDELL: Goldstein brings me to a room where large books are placed in a cradle, carefully pinned down and put under a camera. It's a rather tedious process of going page by page. But Goldman says these are wonderful historical records that could be of interest to people outside of San Francisco, like the scrapbook of a famous homicide detective named Theodore Kitke. He was a pioneer in using modern techniques like handwriting analysis.
GOLDSTEIN: And it's all his cases that he testified in or worked on. And so it's just all these murder cases, mostly, like the mistress poisoning the wife and sending her chocolates, or was it wife poisoned the mistress, I think it was, that one big case.
SYDELL: San Francisco is working to get this material on the Digital Public Library of America. Luis Herrera, the city librarian, is on the DPLA board. He thinks this service is going to be great for students of all ages in San Francisco and elsewhere - from grammar school to graduate school.
LUIS HERRERA: Think of the amazing stuff that's there, whether it's the first photograph of the moon. And they have some amazing photographs of the civil rights movement. You can use that for your school experience.
SYDELL: And it's free, which is part of the motivation behind the DPLA. It's an idea that germinated on the East Coast at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. Among the founders is John Palfrey, who now heads the exclusive private high school Phillips Academy. Palfrey says he was concerned that the process of digitizing the nation's books and records was being left to a private company, Google, which had deals with publishers.
JOHN PALFREY: Which I think vested too much authority in a group of for-profits who had a particular interest, which was making money from the sale of books. And it's not to say authors and publishers shouldn't be able to make money from the sale of books. Of course they should. But when we're talking about a library and talking about the future of libraries, I think a public-spirited entity needs to have a central role there.
SYDELL: But when it comes to more recent books and materials, the DPLA is caught in a bind. Libraries are locked in tough negotiations with publishers over how to purchase and lend copyrighted e-books. So instead, the DPLA is targeting materials already in the public domain.
PALFREY: There's a ton that we could do that's useful to the public without having to wonder about copyright. So if we were to get all public domain materials digitized in every library and sharable from any other point on the globe, that would be an enormous service to the world.
SYDELL: It's terrific that the DPLA is helping the world. But some public librarians are not sure it's what the patrons actually need.
JIM DUNCAN: In my view, it - the DPLA does not fit the definition of a public library.
SYDELL: Jim Duncan is the director of the Colorado Library Consortium, which helps libraries in the state to assess and meet the needs of their patrons.
DUNCAN: What the typical public library user wants and needs, it tends to be contemporary content, bestsellers. And that's what they're coming to the public library to check out.
SYDELL: Duncan would like to see the DPLA use more of its muscle to negotiate with publishers, to make e-books available through libraries. The backers of the DPLA say they do want to take on the copyright issues. But for now, they hope to lay the foundation by digitizing the resources they can get up quickly and without a fight. Laura Sydell, NPR News.