Why Did Sloan and Knight Foundations Pour $3.4 Million Into the Digital Public Library of America?

Anyone who's spent time in business school or sat through a corporate strategy meeting is familiar with the term "silo." In a business context, particularly when viewed through the lens of customer data, information can reside in a standalone silo, independent and exclusive from other parts of the business. This dreaded "silo mentality" manifests itself when departments within organizations do not—unwillingly or otherwise—share information with other parts of the company. This is a bad thing, as it increases complexity and decreases efficiency.

This problem, of course, isn't relegated to the business world. Anytime you have multiple, isolated repositories of information under one roof, the silo mentality can rear its ugly head.

Take libraries' ongoing efforts to digitize their collections. It's a huge feat in and of itself. Not surprisingly, deep pocketed-foundations are allocating millions to help libraries digitize their holdings for perpetuity. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for example, allocated two grants totaling $1.25 million to help Penn State and University of Michigan libraries digitize their collections of rare materials. 

And don't get us wrong—digitizing such material is a hugely important endeavour. But what happens next? What happens when, say, hundreds, if not thousands, of libraries have their collections digitized? Who will ensure that people from all over the world can easily access this material and that it doesn't fall victim the silo mentality?

Enter the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), whose goal is nothing less than connecting online collections from coast to coast by 2017. We're talking public access to more than 10 million items from 1,600 institutions.

It's an ambitious goal that just got a much-needed cash infusion of $3.4 million—$1.9 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and $1.5 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. These grants, coupled with significant earlier support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will let DPLA build a collaborative architecture—based on its Service Hubs—to enable organizations from all over the U.S. to connect through one national collection.

The DPLA describes these service hubs as "state or regional digital collaboratives that host, aggregate or otherwise bring together digital objects from libraries, archives, museums and other cultural heritage institutions in their state or region."

And Sloan, Knight, and—as previously noted—Gates have put serious money behind this effort to break down silos and make this wealth of information readily available.

Specifically, the Sloan Foundation’s $1.9 million award will build on its continued support since DPLA’s launch to establish service hubs in eight uncovered states and to further explore how it might address e-books in the collection. The Knight Foundation’s $1.5 million award will facilitate the expansion of the DPLA’s hub network in another eight states where the Knight Foundation invests.

In short, both foundations want to expand access into uncharted (yet friendly) territory. And with that in mind, we'll actually let Doron Weber, vice president of programs and program director at the Sloan Foundation, have the last word.

"DPLA represents an historic, non-commercial, grass-roots network to collect, curate, innovate and disseminate a comprehensive catalog of every form of digital knowledge for the benefit of all under the highest standards of quality, stewardship and open access."