An Interview with Robert Darnton on the Digital Public Library of America

Randall Stephens

"Google demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time," wrote Robert Darton several months back in the New York Review of Books. "Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good," he asked, "a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?"

Creating a Digital Public Library of America would be no easy task. Certainly there are major obstacles
to overcome. The legal matters of copyright and what to do about so-called orphan books would be daunting. Cost, as well, would pose a problem. Yet, says Darnton:

If [other] countries can create national digital libraries, why can’t the United States? Because of the cost, some would argue. Far more works exist in English than in Dutch or Japanese, and the Library of Congress alone contains 30 million volumes. Estimates of the cost of digitizing one page vary enormously, from ten cents (the figure cited by Brewster Kahle, who has digitized over a million books for the Internet Archive) to ten dollars, depending on the technology and the required quality. But it should be possible to digitize everything in the Library of Congress for less than Sarkozy’s €750 million—and the cost could be spread out over a decade.

A little over a week ago I sat down with Darntonaward-winning historian, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard, and director of the Harvard University Libraryto discuss
plans underway for a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Sitting in Darnton's office right next to Harvard Square we discussed the nettlesome issues surrounding the DPLA, what the massive on-line collection might offer, and how such a virtual repository could serve the public. In the two videos embedded here Darnton also considers what this proposed library would mean for scholars in the humanities and history in particular.

The project has deep intellectual roots in American soil. In another essay that Darnton wrote for the New York Review, he reflected on the long history of the idea. "The ambition behind this project goes back to the founding of this country," he remarks. "Thomas Jefferson formulated it succinctly: 'Knowledge is the common property of mankind.' He was right—in principle. But in practice, most of humanity has been cut off from the accumulated wisdom of the ages. In Jefferson’s day, only a tiny elite had access to the world of learning. Today, thanks to the Internet, we can open up that world to all of our fellow citizens. We have the technical means to make Jefferson’s dream come true, but do we have the will?" In the video interview Darnton ponders what is possible now that has never been possible before. The dreams of the Founders, spun out of Enlightenment optimism, could, at least in some ways, be realized today.

Few early Americans spelled out a plan for a "publick" Library as did Benjamin Franklin. His ideals of thrift, self-improvement, volunteerism, access, and the public good are apparent in passages like the following from his Autobiography:

At the time I establish'd myself in Pennsylvania, there was not a good bookseller's shop in any of the colonies to the southward of Boston. In New York and Philad'a the printers were indeed stationers; they sold only paper, etc., almanacs, ballads, and a few common school-books. Those who lov'd reading were oblig'd to send for their books from England; the members of the Junto had each a few. We had left the alehouse, where we first met, and hired a room to hold our club in. I propos'd that we should all of us bring our books to that room, where they would not only be ready to consult in our conferences, but become a common benefit, each of us being at liberty to borrow such as he wish'd to read at home. This was accordingly done, and for some time contented us.

Finding the advantage of this little collection, I propos'd to render the benefit from books more common, by commencing a public subscription library. I drew a sketch of the plan and rules that would be necessary, and got a skilful conveyancer, Mr Charles Brockden, to put the whole in form of articles of agreement to be subscribed, by which each subscriber engag'd to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them. So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry, to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. On this little fund we began. The books were imported; the library was opened one day in the week for lending to the subscribers, on their promissory notes to pay double the value if not duly returned. The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no publick amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observ'd by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.

There were critics in Franklin's day and there are critics of the DPLA now. But, it's encouraging that conversations/debates and planning have begun in earnest!