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American history at your fingertips

By July 20, 2013November 8th, 2023No Comments

Launch of Digital Public Library of America brings greater access to local treasures

Portrait of Dr. G. A. Dahl, Mankato, Minnesota

Portrait of Dr. G. A. Dahl, Mankato, Minnesota

The Nicollet County Historical Society in south central Minnesota sits on the site of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, signed between the United States and the Dakota nation in 1851. Eleven years later, following several treaty violations by the U.S. government, war broke out in the region, which resulted in the execution of 38 Dakota — to this day the largest mass execution in American history.

St. Peter, Minnesota — a mile down the road from the treaty site — might have been the capital of Minnesota, if not for the trickery of Joe Rolette, a legislator from Pembina. In 1857, the Minnesota territorial legislature passed a law to move the capital from St. Paul to St. Peter. But Rolette — with the bill in his possession — disappeared long enough to ensure that the governor could not sign the law before the end of the legislative session.

This place is truly historic. And that history will now become much easier for the public across the nation and the world to learn about and access thanks to the recent launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Digital Public Library of America aggregates millions of digital artifacts

The DPLA (located at is a groundbreaking project that, for the first time, will make many of our nation’s significant digital collections searchable and accessible to the public from a single site. It will aggregate millions of digital artifacts from local archives, libraries, museums, and cultural heritage institutions across America and deliver them to students, teachers, scholars, and the public via a powerful search interface.

“You can’t tell the history of Minnesota or even the history of the United States without telling the story that happened here,” said Ben Leonard, director of the Nicollet County Historical Society. “We really do have unique items in the collection and the reality is that the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t know that they’re here — wouldn’t know we’re here — without the Digital Public Library of America.”

Minnesota Digital Library a key partner in DPLA

Figure skaters posing at Winter Haven, Sartell, Minnesota. Stearns HIstory Museum.

Figure skaters posing at Winter Haven, Sartell, Minnesota.
Stearns HIstory Museum.

The DPLA launched on April 18, two-and-a-half years after planning began in October 2010. With total funding to date of about $7.8 million, the DPLA brings together a national network of more than 40 state/regional digital libraries and myriad large digital libraries. These include large “content” hubs, such as The Smithsonian Institution, and state and regional “service” hubs, such as the Minnesota Digital Library.

The Minnesota Digital Library (MDL) has received $350,000 in funding — $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and $100,000 from the Knight Foundation. The funding is being used for digitizing existing special collections, making them searchable and accessible through the DPLA, providing outreach and education to communities about the DPLA, supporting the development of new, “born digital” content, and capturing the unique and diverse stories of the communities throughout the state and region.

The MDL is supported through a statewide collaboration of Minitex, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, and other key institutions. (Minitex is a joint program of the of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the University of Minnesota.) In its role as a DPLA hub, the MDL will serve as an “on-ramp” to interested public libraries, special libraries, colleges, museums, historical societies, and other organizations across the state — ensuring that local and regional collections throughout Minnesota can be discovered and accessed through the DPLA as part of this new national initiative.

Minnesota Reflections website contains more than 130,000 artifacts

Marian Rengel, Outreach Coordinator for the Minnesota Digital Library, travels the state to meet with these organizations and assists them in sharing their history through the digitization and inclusion of their unique collections in Minnesota Reflections (http://reflections., the public-facing website maintained by the MDL since 2004. The website contains more than 130,000 images, maps, and documents.

“We have been, for 10 years now, about access, helping organizations around the state share what they have. And this will give us a chance to share on a national platform,” said Rengel, who recently traveled to Askov, Duluth, Crosby, Rochester, Northfield, Winnebago, Willmar, Pipestone, Moorhead, and International Falls. About 150 organizations around the state have contributed material to the MDL. “We will work with any (non-profit) organization in Minnesota … to help them digitize their collections.”

Minnesota Historical Society plays key role in DPLA online exhibit

Dakota quillwork leather vest

Dakota quillwork leather vest, approximately 1890-1899. Minnesota Historical Society

One of these partners, the Minnesota Historical Society, played a key role in the DPLA launch by directing development of an online exhibit, titled: “History of Survivance: Upper Midwest 19th Century Native American Narratives.” The exhibit tells a story of extraordinary culture disruption, change and continuity, and the effect that it has had on the Native American population of Minnesota (see:

“The Minnesota Historical Society’s fundamental mission is to connect people with history,” said Jennifer Jones, director of library and collections at the Minnesota Historical Society. She said that the DPLA represents an opportunity to extend that mission. “This project really allows people across the country, and across the globe, to discover things at our historical society in new ways.”

Behind the scenes, the University of Minnesota is providing the expertise to digitize many of these artifacts and make them searchable through the DPLA.

Community engagement is a significant focus of DPLA

“The University of Minnesota, with our numerous other partners within the MDL collaboration, provides a lot of the operational expertise and support — a lot of project and data management, the day-to-day applications and systems support — to bring these digital collections from across Minnesota online,” said Jason Roy, director of Digital Library Services at the University of Minnesota Libraries and the project manager for the MDL— DPLA collaboration. “But beyond that, what we’re looking to provide the DPLA is the community engagement piece, to go out and engage the community and create new kinds of digital documentation — be they audio storytelling or oral histories, documentary photography, perhaps even documentary video.”

That part is especially exciting to Kit Hadley, director of the St. Paul Public Library. She said the Library is working closely with Karen-speaking immigrants from Burma and Thailand, while examining ways to represent this culture moving forward.

“What does the archive look like for the Karen-speaking people in St. Paul and in Minnesota?” she asked. “I think that these tools — the Minnesota Digital Library and the Digital Public Library of America — are going to help us build and preserve this contemporary experience, and preserve it in a way that is going to enrich this community building in the future.”

American history at your fingertips

Overall, the consensus points to the Digital Public Library of America as a major benefit, not just to scholars, but the general public.

“The DPLA will give people more access,” said Rengel. “And it will also give people across the country a sense of how Minnesota fits in with the story of America.”

“(People will) really have America at their fingertips by being able to go online and not have to travel across the country to see these really unique, one-of-a-kind items,” Leonard said. “It’s just an amazing resource.”

“The DPLA allows us access to an incredible set of unique digital collections,” Roy said. “Out of this grand aggregation we can begin to weave together a national story that encompasses collections gathered from across this great nation.”

-Mark Engebretson

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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