A new website called the Digital Public Library of America has launched in beta form, and hopes to combine public library documents from around the country into a single, searchable database.

No, it's not a place for you to check out free e-books. (Lots of local libraries offer that service, though they tend to be crippled by book publishers.) Instead, DPLA lets you search for images, text, audio, and video across multiple libraries and museums. In most cases, the site then links to the source, where you can view the content.

"Starting with more than two million items, each with its own special story and significance, the Digital Public Library of America will now begin to assemble the riches of our country's libraries, archives, and museums, and connect them with the public," says a blog postby Executive Director Dan Cohen.

The DPLA also has its own curated exhibitions. For example, there's an exhibition on activism in the United States and one on prohibition. These special sections include written passages and images collected from libraries and museums around the country.

Right now, you can view search results in a basic list, or you can see them arranged on a timeline or map. DPLA is also offering software tools, so developers can visualize the data in other ways.

Why a digital public library could be useful

Granted, much of the usefulness of libraries, at least for information gathering, has been surpassed by the Internet and search engines. If you're looking for information on a given topic, you'll find a lot more through Google or Wikipedia than you will through the DPLA.

But the advantage of a national online library is its ability to offer primary sources on historical topics, including manuscripts, images, and audio. In that sense, it's similar to the Library of Congress, but with links to smaller, disparate institutions instead of its own massive collection.

Although the collection is relatively small now, hopefully the Digital Public Library of America will become a more valuable resource over time. Perhaps someday, when a teacher says to go to the library instead of searching on Google, the amount of effort required will be the same.