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A Deep Dive Into the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

Genealogists use a LOT of websites. And we all have assumptions about what certain websites can offer our research. However, researchers need to rethink their assumptions about the websites they use. That was brought home to me recently as I researched a Mexican American cookbook writer and found one of her books, fully digitized in a place I never expected. The Digital Public Library of Ameria (DPLA).

The Digital Public Library of America is a website that I know well. I use it quite often, looking for images, community cookbooks, and other records. I was looking for a photo of my research subject, Elena Zelayeta recently and thought there might be one on DPLA. But then I came across the unexpected, a digital copy of two of her books. Having access to those books helped me enormously as I was preparing for a presentation about her life. 

What is DPLA?

According to their About page: "The Digital Public Library of America empowers people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society by maximizing access to our shared history, culture, and knowledge." They do this by working with partners to make millions of materials from libraries, archives, museums, and cultural institutions available to the public in one catalog. You can read more about DPLA and their partners at their About page.

So what is DPLA not? It's a resource that brings together digital items from U.S. repositories. Now that doesn't mean there aren't materials for other countries. It just means that the repositories are U.S.-based. For genealogists, this means access to repositories with genealogy relevant information like the National Archives (NARA).

DPLA Partners

One last thing, DPLA doesn't "own" the items in the catalog. It's a collaborative catalog that makes searching easier. You search, look at a results list, click on the item of interest, and from that page, you can then go to the page of the repository that owns the item.

Why do you need DPLA?

I'm a big believer in "you don't know what you don't know." And I think that's especially true in genealogy when you can be surprised by records you didn't know existed or in places you didn't know to look. Because DPLA brings together partner institutions and their collections, you can find material from repositories you may not have expected to hold items you need. In addition to that, "digitized items" found on DPLA can span documents, ephemera, books, periodicals, photographs, maps, and even photos of material items.

Searching DPLA

As genealogists, we tend to search websites for an ancestor's name, but in all likelihood, unless your ancestor was well known, you probably won't receive results from a name search on DPLA. (I realize that I did find an item based on a name search, Elena Zelayeta, but I was also searching for someone who had written six books.) Expand your search to include:

  • Where your ancestor lived
  • An occupation
  • Organizations they were apart of
  • Their church or religion
  • A historical event

DPLA SP Results

For example, I searched on the keywords "Southern Pacific," which is where my grandfather worked. I received over 16,000 results. That's way too many to look at! I can use the tools found on the left-hand side of the screen to refine my search (remember that most library and archive catalogs feature that "refine" box). Because my grandfather would have been working for the Southern Pacific after 1945 and before 1990, I narrowed the date and place (California), which brings me down to a manageable 97 results. Now, I can use other options to narrow the search even more, but this seems like a reasonable number of hits to peruse.

Now I'm not expecting to find something specifically for my grandfather. This isn't a genealogy website that has databases with indexed content. My grandfather wasn't "famous," so I doubt there is anything in DPLA listing him. However, it's always a good idea to do an exhaustive search and to make sure there was nothing.

In this search, I'm looking for images that I can use to tell his story so that his descendants get a better sense of his life.

DPLA SP image

Once I find an image I'm interested in, I can click on it to learn more and then click the blue button "View Full Item" to see the item on the partner organization's website. This will provide more information about the item and any copyright restrictions. Because something appears on DPLA doesn't mean it is not under copyright protection and can be used in a publication online or off.


Lastly, I want to point out my favorite feature visible in this screenshot at the top right. I can add items I find to lists I create for the subjects I am researching. This provides me an opportunity to curate a list of items I'm interested in and to save it to the "cloud."

DPLA List button

There are limitations to these lists. Unlike other types of online lists that require you to sign into a website (think Google Books, MyLibrary, or WorldCat), this one recognizes your browser. So the limitation is that you cannot retrieve your lists if you use DPLA from another computer. About the feature, DPLA writes:

Revisit, revise, and add to your lists anytime by visiting in the same browser you used to create them. To protect your privacy and avoid collecting personal information like names and emails, we designed this tool to work in conjunction with your device's internet browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) rather than requiring a DPLA account. Your lists are private because they only exist in the browser you use to create them. To use and add to your lists, just be sure to use the same device and browser each time you visit DPLA.[1]


Are you Using DPLA for your Genealogy?

There's a real benefit to family historians as more digital collections become available. DPLA makes it so easy to search numerous partner institutions in one place. And you never know what you're going to find.


[1] "Save your Favorite DPLA with New List Feature," DPLA ( accessed 28 June 2021).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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