Four years ago, Robert Darnton, historian and librarian at Harvard, wrote in the New York Review that “we [had] missed a great opportunity.” Instead of digitizing America’s print heritage in a public project, perhaps managed by “a grand alliance of research libraries,” the United States had allowed a private corporation to control the scanning and storing of books. Depending on the outcome of federal lawsuits, Google Books would enjoy a virtual monopoly on books still in copyright.
“We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria,” Darnton wrote. “It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.”
Paul Courant, of the University of Michigan, and others questioned Darnton’s apparent despair, pointing out that academic research libraries were already organizing to help store and administer digitized texts. And within months, Darnton sounded more optimistic. With even the most minimal support from Congress, private foundations might be able to ally to create a national digital library, building on work already done by the nonprofit Internet Archive. “At the rate of a million books a year” (and perhaps a total cost of $750 million), he wrote, “we would have a great library, free and accessible to everyone, within a decade.” In early October 2010, he convened a conference at Harvard to discuss the plan.
In a famous letter of 1813, Thomas Jefferson compared the spread of ideas to the way people light one candle from another: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
The eighteenth-century ideal of spreading light may seem archaic today, but it can acquire a twenty-first-century luster if one associates it with the Internet, which transmits messages at virtually no cost. And if Internet enthusiasm sounds suspiciously idealistic, one can extend the chain of associations to a key concept of modern economics—that of a public good.
We may soon get to see how that vision can serve us. At noon Eastern today, the Digital Public Library of America will launch a beta version of its “discovery portal,” allowing visitors to search through materials at a wide array of participating institutions.
This is the product of more than two years of work, managed by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society but involving representatives from dozens of other scholarly organizations (and funded by the Sloan Foundation, the Arcadia Fund, the NEH, the Mellon Foundation, and the Soros Foundation).
The DPLA relies on other organizations for more than support; for the time being, at least, it supports their digitization projects more than the other way around. The DPLA is not a factory or storehouse for scanned books and images, but a guide to collections maintained elsewhere. And the disgraceful snarl of American copyright law still impedes efforts to make even classic works produced by long-dead authors available freely to the public. Furthermore, libraries and publishers have reason to be concerned about their survival prospects in this age of ephemeral text. So the future of the DPLA as a public alternative to private control of the cultural commons is uncertain.
Those of us who rely, with increasing frequency and urgency, on digital records for scholarship and teaching have a lot to gain from the creation of such a central directory of open library content. We have even more to gain from initiatives that grant access to new sources and encourage the country’s academic institutions to cooperate in making their collections available to the vast online public. Let’s hope that the Digital Public Library of America lives up to its Jeffersonian promise.