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John Harvard's Journal

A Digital Public Library?

January-February 2011


The Task Force on University Libraries recommends a coordinated management structure for the entire system.

The dream of creating a national digital library, free to all, began to seem much less like a fantasy in early October. In a private meeting convened by Pforzheimer University Professor Robert Darnton--arranged by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and funded by a private foundation--42 leaders of research libraries, major foundations, and national cultural institutions met in Cambridge to discuss how to work together toward the creation of a Digital Public Library of America. 

“I was amazed by the response,” says Darnton, who is director of the Harvard University Library, but was acting as a public intellectual and longtime champion of the idea, rather than in his official capacity. “Everyone I asked said instantly, ‘This is a great idea, we’ll be there.’” As Darnton declared in his welcoming remarks, the library would be “the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress...bringing millions of books and digitized material in other media within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any individual with access to the Internet.”

Darnton has argued in the past that a “united front of foundations,” if persuaded that creating a digital library would be in the interests of the American people, could overcome any financial hurdles to launching such a resource. That intuition was correct. “The very first session concerned costs,” he reports. Even though estimates ranged widely, depending on what the library would hold (and in particular the cost of digital preservation: see “Gutenberg 2.0,” May-June 2010, page 36), “everyone agreed that it is a feasible project and the funding is not the major obstacle.” For example, a project to digitize all books in the public domain (no longer in copyright) as well as so-called orphan books (those published between 1923 and 1964 for which no copyright owner can be found) might cost $1 billion, Darnton says. Given a coalition of foundations, each contributing a share across five years, he says, “There is no question but that we could afford it.”

Mary Lee Kennedy, executive director of the Business School’s Baker Library, presented research on the national digitization efforts of 21 countries, with particular emphasis on models in Norway and the Netherlands. The ambition of the Dutch, for example, is to digitize every Dutch book, newspaper, and pamphlet from 1470 to the present. Interestingly, their national library, which began the project in 1996, has entered into a partnership with Google to digitize more than 160,000 public-domain books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Google paying for the cost of digitization. Among the lessons learned from the Dutch, Kennedy said, is that preservation costs are difficult to predict, and that copyright issues are a significant challenge.

Experts on copyright also made presentations. Darnton hopes that bipartisan support in Congress may eventually lead to some sort of accommodation or change to copyright laws that would allow more books still in copyright to become part of the digital library. Innovative technological solutions that enable limiting the number of loaned copies of books in digital form may also play a role in facilitating a digital public lending library. Darnton imagines “a core which you could think of as a huge digital database that would expand indefinitely over time.” Other resources might be added later, such as the database of newspapers from all 50 states already digitized by the Library of Congress.

Such details will doubtless be worked out at subsequent meetings. For now, the group has come up with what Darnton calls “the beginnings of a strategy.” Two follow-up conferences are planned: one of foundation leaders, in order to organize their support; and a second, much larger, public conference in Washington, D.C., this spring intended to organize support among the great cultural institutions in the nation’s capital. Of the Harvard gathering, Darnton said, “We just provided an occasion to get things started.”


The Task Force on University Libraries recommends a coordinated management structure for the entire system.

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