The Digital Public Library of America?


Robert Darnton, historian and the director of the Harvard University Library, has been writing recently about digitized books.

Last December, for instance, he suggested the creation of a national digital library as a way to solve the Google Books lawsuit (settlement still pending; judge Denny Chin yet to issue a ruling). Darnton returned to this idea in a recent blog post as well as in a speech he gave during a workshop in Cambridge last month, the text of which also appeared in the pages of the New York Review of Books.

His idea has an idealistic Founding-Fathers/New-Deal ring to it, but can it happen?

Political will and money, as expected, are cited as troublesome issues. There are complex technological hurdles as well. And there is the very important question of copyright. Most recently, in an exchange with Tony Simpson, the president of the New Zealand Society of Authors, Darnton writes about how the rights of authors might be addressed in the creation of “The Digital Public Library of America.”

He concludes:

Although I convened the workshop, I merely provided an occasion to launch a debate involving many people who do not necessarily share my ideas. My New York Review article was drawn from the talk I gave at its opening and represents my views, not those of the others, and it should not be taken as a report on the discussions that subsequently took place. Those discussions will lead to other meetings involving our wider community, which in turn may open the way to the creation of a great digital library. If they do, the edifice cannot be constructed without a broad debate on a national scale, for the library will belong to the American people, and the people themselves should have a voice in its design.

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →