The Digital Public Library of America: The Future of Free Online Resources?
Robert Darnton of the Harvard University Library has a vision: digitalize all information and make it free for the public. Sound crazy? Maybe, but when “42 top-level representatives from foundations, cultural institutions, and the library and scholarly worlds” meet to discuss making this a reality, it doesn’t sound as crazy. The Digital Public Library of America or the National Digital Library “would be the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress, but instead of being confined to Capitol Hill, it would exist everywhere, bringing millions of books and other digitized material within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, junior colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any person with access to the Internet.”
The idea is very simple, but of course, there are intellectual property issues, funding issues, and plain maintenance issues. Despite these hurdles, such an undertaking can be feasible; smaller scale versions of digital libraries have existed such as the California Digital Library, the HathiTrust, or the Internet Archive. Moreover, there are many foundations committed to the idea of free information and are willing to back it up with significant financial support. Moreover, as Darnton notes, “Virtually every developed country has launched some kind of national digital library, and many developing countries are doing the same.”
Best of all, it truly is an open project as Darnton and the Harvard Berkman Center has set up a wiki in which anyone can contribute– in every sense of the word. There is also a public e-mail list dedicated to the discussion of the Digital Public Library of America. Granted, at the moment, there isn’t much discussion going on right now given its recent establishment; nevertheless, the site’s membership is already filled with many librarians and others interested in this cutting edge project, which is a great sign.
I think we can all agree that the idea of a national digital library is fantastic, but let’s consider the potential issues and concerns in more depth. First, isn’t this best left to the Library of Congress? Why are we abdicating this role to the private sector? Is this project really going to be a project funded and paid for by private foundations…forever? Could this potentially lead to conflicts of interest? I admire private foundations as much as the next person, but I am, nevertheless, concerned a bit about their private agenda– even when they usually are in line with my beliefs. I am one who would prefer that the control or manipulation of knowledge be in the hands of…bureaucrats or some extremely neutral group of individuals. What would happen if these foundations stop funding the project?
Second, this is a very, very long term project that wouldn’t lead to tangible results until far into the future. And, I am concerned that people and contributors would lose interest in the project in favor of more established digital collections. While there might be some collaborative efforts between this project and other organizations, I wonder if this is sufficient to overcome this potential problem.
Third, the elephant in the room– Google. GoogleBooks had tried a similar project before and hit an intense roadblock known as intellectual property. I don’t know enough since this project is relatively new, but I would be interested in knowing how this project could overcome this problem. After all, Google managed to convince several university libraries like Harvard and Yale to let it scan their books, but that didn’t go too far for the above reason. It’s not resistance from non-profits and academia, but from publishers, authors, and sometimes even states.
Side note: Some states even try to assert copyright on their statutes!
Fourth, why not support Google instead of trying to reinvent the wheel? Other than bashing it for taking over our lives (which it is) and for being a for-profit corporation, it has the resources, energy, and most of all, a head start on the project?
Critiques aside, I am very excited at the thought of having a national digital archive for not just legal works, but works of fiction, non-fiction, and the like. Information should be free and the best way to set it free is by sending it out on a medium with the greatest reach–the internet. And, for the record, I wholeheartedly support Darnton’s proposal and look forward with much anticipation on how it will turn out.