Digital Public Library of America Hosts its First Appfest

Mary Barnett, Social Media Coordinator
Chattanooga Public Library

Peter Murray, Assistant Director
Technology Services Development LYRASIS


The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)’s first Appfest took place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last month inside the city public library’s newly opened raw space called the 4th Floor.

The goal was to experiment with the DPLA application programming interface (API) to see if it could answer queries from programs that would do useful tasks. An additional perk was getting to try out Chattanooga’s gigabit broadband network. It’s the fastest network in the country and has earned the city the nickname “Gig City.”

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield welcomed Appfest attendees underscoring the significance of events like Appfest in helping drive the local librarys’ next era. Like DPLA, the 4th Floor itself is at the frontier of its own potential, coming into being as libraries all over the country explore ways to transition from being keepers of content to centers for the creation of content. The vision for the 14,000-square-foot space is to become a public laboratory and educational facility focused on information, design, technology, and the applied arts.

The 4th floor at Chattanooga Public Library

The Chattanooga Library’s 4th Floor is a new space on the library’s top floor that is used as a hub for tech, design, information and the applied arts. It evolves with every event letting constant use define the way forward. While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.

The venue’s high-speed connectivity wasn’t the only freakishly fast X-factor at Appfest. With just a little over a day – and really just eight hours – diverse teams of coders, metadata specialists, designers, “idea people,” librarians, and user-experience professionals competed against each other in developing, deconstructing, designing, and demonstrating apps based on eight vetted ideas submitted by attendees.

The two-day date with data tackled issues of collections visualization, metadata comparison and similarities, integrating geotagging data, and curating from DPLA’s collection to name a few.

Nate Hill, Assistant Director for Technology and Digital Initiatives welcomes the Appfest attendees.

Nate Hill, Assistant Director for Technology and Digital Initiatives, Chattanooga Public Library, welcomes the Appfest attendees to the 4th Floor. Photo by Mary Barnett.

Peers committed themselves to teams by choosing to focus – not float – on one of the eight ideas with the intent to move DPLA’s ambitious platform forward and outward.

The goal of the DPLA is a little unusual. Although there will be a public web-based interface to content, the overriding desire is building the back-end services that will enable DPLA content to be used through local libraries, archives, and museums in multiple interfaces. In this way, DPLA is like a traditional publisher: it will gather content from various sources (authors), add new value (copyedit, create an index), and send out content through a variety of streams (libraries, local bookstores, internet retailers, convenience stores, and airport shops). The DPLA will gather content from regional and subject hubs, enhance it, and make it available to websites, mobile applications, and other tools. The AppFest was a way to figure out if the early technology designs of the DPLA could meet those goals.

Judges awarded top honors to the app developed by the “DPLA-Plus” team. Basically a recommendation engine, the app suggests additional content a public user might be interested in based on recent searches, much in the same way Netflix and Amazon are recommend movies, books, and other items based on users’ previous or similar searches.

By the time the impressive and brief presentations concluded and the trophy was awarded, attendees tweeted that it had been the most productive hackathon they had ever attended with more near-complete apps than is usually the case in the fest format. See more “social media flotsam” from build-day archived on DPLA’s Storify page.

From exploring ways to make it easy and fun for users to contribute new items into the DPLA collections, to finding fast and intuitive ways to extract content, the momentum for ideas at Appfest has ignited a commitment from attendees to flesh out and finish what they started in Chattanooga this fall.

The DPLA API also lived up to the challenge, both in terms of robustness of functionality and its technical ability to respond to queries from projects.

The AppFest was more evidence that the DPLA is definitely pulling itself up by its bootstraps. Coming right after a successful Midwest plenary session and formal incorporation and installation of its board of directors, plus announcements of new rounds of grant funding from IMLS, NEH, and the Knight Foundation, the DPLA is making steady progress towards fulfilling its mission. The unveiling of a public interface to the DPLA collection is set for April 2013.

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