A bookshelf the size of the world

Inside the vision for the largest library in history

Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, and others are working to create a worldwide digital public library. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff) Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, and others are working to create a worldwide digital public library.
By Richard Beck
July 24, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

As the digitization of human culture accelerates, publishers and academics have had to begin addressing a basic question: Who will control knowledge in the future?

So far, the most likely answer to that question has been a private company: Google. Since 2004 Google Books has been scanning books and putting them online; the company says it has already scanned more than 15 million. Google estimates there are about 130 million books in the world, and by 2020, it plans to have scanned them all.

Now, however, a competitor may be emerging. Last year, Robert Darnton, a cultural historian and director of Harvard University’s library system, began to raise the prospect of creating a public digital library. This library would include the digitized collections of the country’s great research institutions, but it would also bring in other media - video, music, film - as well as the collection of Web pages maintained by the Internet Archive.

Like Google Books, it would have as its goal the eventual digitization of human culture, preserving the works of the world’s authors, scholars, artists, and entertainers and making them widely available. Unlike Google Books, however, this library would not be operated by a for-profit company. It would be accessible to any person, in any place, at any time, at no cost.

Since Darnton began discussing it last year, with a speech at a Harvard conference that was later published in The New York Review of Books, the idea has quickly evolved from a “what if” proposal to a project with its own momentum. Its steering committee includes representatives from the Library of Congress, Harvard, and other libraries and archives; the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored a meeting in Washington last month to work through some of the technical hurdles. It has a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Darnton says it is also attracting interest from other large philanthropies. He believes a prototype should be up and running within three years. “It’s not the utopian dream of some college professor,” he says. “This thing actually is feasible.”

Darnton, a scholar of the French Enlightenment as well as the history of the book, has directed Harvard’s libraries since 2007. With more than 16 million volumes, Harvard’s is the largest university library in the world, but this new project aims to be much bigger: If Darnton succeeds, the Digital Public Library of America will be largest library in human history. He spoke with Ideas on the phone from his office in Cambridge.

IDEAS: What was the impetus for starting this project?

DARNTON: Many people over the past 20 years have been developing ideas of this sort . . . . Now in a way, the triggering event was Google Book Search. Google, with its fabulous capacity for technological innovation, and its money, and its sheer chutzpah, demonstrated that this kind of a library could actually be created.

IDEAS: So why not leave it to Google?

DARNTON: It became clear, as Google’s project evolved, that it would be a commercial enterprise, and in fact an enterprise attached to a gigantic monopoly. A monopoly, perhaps, with the best intentions, but that would not necessarily serve the public good, because of course Google’s primary responsibility would be to its shareholders.

IDEAS: How did you put the DPLA in motion, then?

DARNTON: Last summer I began sounding people out . . . .The response was so enthusiastic that on October 1, a group of people convened at Harvard from the world of foundations, the great cultural institutions in Washington - the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the NEH - some computer scientists and library heads. And within the first 30 minutes the people there, especially from the world of foundations, said, “We can do it. We can find the money.”

IDEAS: Can you name any of the foundations?

DARNTON: That would probably be unpolitic of me. But you could say that the greatest foundations have all expressed enthusiasm for the idea. And by that, I really mean it . . . .We’re not going to Congress to ask for a penny.

IDEAS: How much money are we talking about? What will it take to get the this library online?

DARNTON: Well, of course we spent a lot of time making estimates. They vary all over the place . . . .President Sarkozy of France said he wanted to digitize France’s “cultural heritage,” as he put it, and would make available, I think the figure was 750 million euros. It’s on that order of magnitude.

IDEAS: So what would a digital public library be like? What would it do?

DARNTON: It doesn’t look like everybody’s image of a library with a kind of Greek temple with lots of books behind the facade. It will be in all likelihood what we call a distributed system, a network that covers all of the holdings of the greatest research libraries in the country . . . .Users won’t even have to worry about where the actual digital text is.

IDEAS: Will you have librarians?

DARNTON: We need librarians who can handle this tremendous jumble of information that is in cyberspace. People think that when you use Google you’re finding exactly what you need, but really you need expert help.

IDEAS: This is one of the characteristic problems of the Internet era, isn’t it?

DARNTON: People sometimes announce that we have entered “the information age” as if information did not exist in other times. I think that every age was an age of information, each in its own way and according to the available media . . . .One thing we have learned from the new discipline known as “the history of the book” is that one means of communication does not displace another. Manuscript publishing actually expanded after the invention of printing by movable type, and it continued to flourish for three centuries after Gutenberg. Instead of lamenting “the death of the book,” I believe we should celebrate new possibilities of combining the printed codex with electronic technology . . . .The information ecology is getting richer, not thinner.

IDEAS: So you’ll be including materials other than books, then.

DARNTON: All kinds of other material. Videos and music and images and so on . . . .For example, every state has done a huge project in digitizing newspapers. Fully digitized versions of these newspapers have now been catalogued at the Library of Congress. Here at Harvard we’ve digitized 2.3 million pages of collections that are quite hard to find and made them available on open access. Other libraries do the same thing. Once you start aggregating all of this, you’ve got something on a scale that’s really greater than Google’s, and something that surpasses anybody’s hopes.

IDEAS: Won’t negotiating copyright issues be a pretty big concern?

DARNTON: The copyright laws cover most literature published in the 20th century, which librarians refer to as a “black hole,” because it remains off limits for digitization and distribution . . . .There are some schemes of using digital copies of copyrighted works that can be lent in the same way that physical books are lent. I think it was HarperCollins who said they would lend e-copies of books 26 times, and then the files would self-destruct. I don’t know how we’re going to handle it. I mean it’s an enormous problem.

IDEAS: Who do you see using the DPLA?

DARNTON: I imagine an enormously varied public. I’m convinced there are people throughout this country who just want to write something to express their own understanding of the world and need material to do that writing . . . .I think there are lots of people in community colleges - many of these community colleges hardly have libraries, but now it should be possible for every community college in the country to have access to something greater than the Library of Congress. I imagine people in retirement homes who would want access to books to entertain themselves. I think there will be lots of uses in K-12 schools . . . .I think what it will do, in a word, is to democratize access to knowledge.

IDEAS: You study the French Enlightenment. To what extent has your research informed your work on this?

DARNTON: I guess I can just confess straight out that I take inspiration from people like Jefferson and Condorcet and others who thought that providing access to knowledge is absolutely essential to the whole nature of our civilization . . . .The Enlightenment uses this idea of the republic of letters, meaning there would be a kind of literary or spiritual world with no police and no boundaries and no linguistic or disciplinary borders, and that this world would be open to everyone, and equally open to everyone . . . .[P]eople often think, “Well, a Harvard professor, he’s got his head in the clouds,” so I’m anxious to not present this as a utopian fantasy. But I do think that utopias are actually very important.

Richard Beck lives in New York City. He writes for n+1.