Robert Darnton: How Google Can Save America's Books





[Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Library. 
His new book, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris, will be published in November. (October 2010).]

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search could be mitigated if Google were willing to contribute some of its data and expertise to the creation of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Google has 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. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—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?

To dismiss this goal as naive or utopian would be to ignore digital projects that have proven their worth and feasibility throughout the last twenty years. All major research libraries have digitized parts of their collections. Since 1995 the Digital Library Federation has worked to combine their catalogues or “metadata” into a general network. More ambitious enterprises such as the Internet Archive, Knowledge Commons, and Public.Resource.Org have attempted digitization on a larger scale. They may be dwarfed by Google, but several countries are now determined to out-Google Google by scanning the entire contents of their national libraries....

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