National Digital Public Library Gets One Step Closer to Reality

A recently convened group at Harvard wants to combine the entrepreneurial energy of Google Books with the openness and public-mindedness of academia.



Is it possible to create a National Digital Library? The question is not particularly new, spurred by the results of Google Books, and already implemented to some degree by projects like HathiTrust, the “shared digital repository” that already has dozens of university partners.

But the question received a new formulation, and a fresh commitment, this past weekend at Harvard. Robert Darnton, Harvard’s chief librarian, convened what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls “a group of 42 top-level representatives from foundations, cultural institutions, and the library and scholarly worlds.” The group issued a statement endorsing what it called a “Digital Public Library of America” that assembles the collections of archives, museums, and universities across the country.

“That goal differs from other schemes in that it would not merely
coordinate digitizing projects that exist everywhere,” Darnton tells Fast Company, “but it would also
make the entire cultural heritage of the country accessible free of
charge to all of our citizens.” Small community colleges without extensive libraries would stand to benefit especially. Something else that sets apart the new vision, Darnton has recently said, is that that “It’s not as if we are just issuing high-minded manifestos. We are taking concrete steps at the organizational level.”

What concrete steps need to be taken? What hurdles need to be overcome? In an October 1 blog post on the topic for the New York Review of Books, Darnton identified a slew of them: technological, political, financial, and legal challenges abound. Google has demonstrated the technological feasibility, the cooperative efforts of libraries show mustering political unity is possible (“everyone checked their egos at the door,” Darnton said of his fellows at last weekend’s meeting), and the strong turnout from foundations last weekend makes funding seem achievable. The real problem, Darnton said recently, was navigating the country’s “baroque copyright laws,” which create especial problems with “orphan works” with unclear copyright status.

And if all else fails to motivate us to make a national digital public library a reality, a bit of jingoism might do the trick. Darnton points out that the Dutch are digitizing every Dutch book, pamphlet, and newspaper; that Japan is doling out 12.6 billion yen to digitizer their national library, and that the French president Nicolas Sarkozy has set aside 750 million euros for a similar purpose. “We have even located an incipient [national digital library] in Mongolia,” writes Darnton. Are we to be outdone by the Mongolians? The thought should be enough to make any patriot agree that the academic, political, and business worlds ought to collaborate to make our on digital library a reality.

[Image: Flickr user CliNKer]


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal