Why Aren't We Creating A National Digital Library?

from the access-to-knowledge-and-information dept

Justin Levine points us to a column in the New York Review of Books by Harvard’s Robert Darnton (based on a speech he gave) questioning why there is no work on a national digital library in the US. There is, obviously, the Google book scanning effort, but as lots of folks are worried about putting all that info in the control of Google, Darnton wonders why others aren’t working on similar efforts as well, pointing out that what Google has really done is shown that it is possible to do.

As for the reasons why, Darnton quotes extensively from our founding fathers on the importance of access to knowledge. They talk up the importance of open access and sharing knowledge — and even highlight technology’s wonderful role in making that possible. And yet, today, rather than using technology to continue that tradition, many have fought against what the technology allows — quite the contrary of what our founding fathers were excited about. It’s rather unfortunate.

Behind the creation of the American republic was another republic, which made the Constitution thinkable. This was the Republic of Letters–an information system powered by the pen and the printing press, a realm of knowledge open to anyone who could read and write, a community of writers and readers without boundaries, police, or inequality of any kind, except that of talent. Like other men of the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers believed that free access to knowledge was a crucial condition for a flourishing republic, and that the American republic would flourish if its citizens exercised their citizenship in the Republic of Letters.

Of course, literacy was limited in the eighteenth century, and those who could read had limited access to books. There was an enormous gap between the hard realities of life two centuries ago and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. You could therefore accuse the Founders of utopianism. For my part, I believe that a strong dose of utopian idealism gave their thought its driving force. I think we should tap that force today, because what seemed utopian in the eighteenth century has now become possible. We can close the gap between the high ground of principle and the hardscrabble of everyday life. We can do so by creating a National Digital Library.

That said, I’d argue that focusing on a centralized method of doing so, whether it’s Google or a university or Congress may still be the wrong way of doing it. Why not distribute the work. I would imagine that many people would be quite willing to contribute their time, their technology and their bandwidth in assisting the creation of a truly distributed, open and free digital library.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Why Aren't We Creating A National Digital Library?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Besides, don’t we already have the library of congress. You can search through digital copies of various publications from the founding fathers online. The LOC website actually has a lot of content. It’s basically their job to archive this stuff and it should be their job to make it available online to the public. Again, some of the problem has to do with the outrageously unacceptable length of copyright, which effectively prevents the LOC from offering anything newer than 95+ years. but to the extent that the LOC does not freely offer public domain works online then they should, it should be their job to. Isn’t this what they’re here for? Perhaps they should also store and offer a lot of creative commons (and other permissibly licensed) works, even if it’s non commercial works (since they are not a commercial entity).

cc (profile) says:

“Google has really done is shown that it is possible to do”

Unfortunately, I think it’s shown quite the opposite. We know the technology exists, but legally and socially we are not ready yet.

When all those authors are screaming and kicking because people are reading their books, as will their “estates” for the next 150 years, you can imagine what sort of problems a national digital library would have.

Two problems, in order of severity.
– Publication requirements. Authors should be obliged to submit digital copies of their books for archiving, as well as hard copies, at a level of quality that would allow them to be reprinted.
– Copyright length. It lasts way too long, on some occasions longer than the physical media will survive, on all occasions much longer than digital media will (without copying). Either limit the length, or allow libraries to copy freely for archiving purposes.

We desperately need to start repealing the copyright extension acts, but that will not happen while authors and other artists continue with their mentality of entitlement and their desire to control published works (note that “control” and “published” basically form an oxymoron). We could blame the publishing industries with their lobbyists and lawyers, but the truth of it is, as long as we have artists who allow themselves to be taken advantage of, the longer we’ll be stuck with the status quo and worse.

RD says:

We already have one

We already have a digital library, its called “file sharing.” It may exist outside of the bounds of law and against the wishes of the authors, but it exists nonetheless. No amount of legislation or litigation will ever stamp out the desire and need for culture, art and knowledge to be preserved, shared and kept alive.

If you cant find a way to earn a living while this form of preservation exists, well, the world needs ditch diggers too, so maybe you can just go find something that DOES give you a living. Not everyone gets to be a rock star, or a world-renowned author, or a famous artist, and its not “owed” to you just because thats what you want to be. Work at it, innovate, find a way, CREATE a way, or go do something else.

Bradley Stewart (profile) says:

I Love Lucy

When this television program began everything was being shot on nitrate film. The problem with this stuff is it deteriorates over time. There was another longer lasting medium for shooting the episodes on. Desi Arnaz asked why they didn’t plan on using this method instead. He was told the reason was it would cost them another $5,000 an episode. He said I will pay the extra cost out of my own pocket. Today the “I Love Lucy” program is running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week somewhere in the world. Today we are a very short sighted society. If we can’t make a buck on something tomorrow that we bought today we are not interested. We need more people who thought like Desi Arnaz.

out_of_the_blue says:

In part because money for luxuries is being blown up in Iraq.

That’s the “hard reality” of our day undermining *all* else. You’re can’t understand the current dystopia without it.

It’s costing literally about a million dollars per “enemy” killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the purposes of war is to use up excess materiel so that peasant’s lives aren’t cushy. It’s Johnson’s “Guns or butter”. Instead of domestic building projects, the US is on a tear to blow the hell out of the Middle East — well, they do build prisons and social control systems here; the war in Iraq is used to rip the souls out of epsilon minuses to man them.

When the infrastructure of highways and other social services crumble around you, don’t pretend you’ve been kept safe by murdering people in far off lands, or wonder why your life is getting worse. — If you were widely read, you’d understand how the game of empire goes. Kind of proves why demand for libraries of any sort is falling.

Other major part is that few actually read now. Television, the internet and video games are good enough for most people. Even those mentioned here are escapist reading.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: In part because money for luxuries is being blown up in Iraq.

I agree that there are lots of things not being done because our spending priorities are elsewhere. And I suspect that even if a massive digital library were created, the average person wouldn’t use it.

I do a done of research online. I dig up stuff that rarely gets cited because I don’t think most people care to dig that deeply.

My point: Having everything online would be cool. But commercial interests are only likely to do it if they can sell it. The government is looking for ways to cut spending. Individuals are doing what they can, whether it is legal or not. Universities are moving to digital bit by bit. It’s not being done for the public at large, both because of licensing reasons and because universities are not trying to educate the world for free.

My public library lets me read a lot of magazines online, which is very cool. If I want to read an article in a recent magazine and it is their database, I can do it online from home. So I think there are quite a few opportunities already. I was doing some research on an article last week and discovered I could access one of the books I wanted to read via Google books. I’ve found a surprising amount of stuff already online.

Wayne Scott says:

Interview with Robert Darnton

Here is a good interview with Mr Darnton on a podcast called the “Kindle Chronicles”. Skip the first 15 minutes if you are not interested in Kindle’s and just want to hear the interview.

They discuss Google scanning Harvard’s library and the resulting lawsuits and his goals for a national digial library like the Library of Congress that is freely accessible.


Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Some are already working on this

Thanks for that link. Here’s their rights management policy.


I think the organizations that want to archive materials are already archiving materials, even if those aren’t being made publicly available yet. It’s time consuming to go back and make digital copies for old items, so more is involved than just obtaining copyrights.

I’m actually more disturbed by how much is available, either online or in libraries, that no one bothers to read anymore. That’s where I think our cultural legacy is being lost. People aren’t going very deep even with stuff that they can easily read.

Given the lack of spending on so many government services, hoping to round up more money right now for this probably isn’t going to happen. Would it be cool for all students to have access to digital libraries? Yes, but we have schools that are physically failing apart, so getting enough computers to those students seems a long way off.

There are more issues in creating a worldwide accessible digital library than just eliminating copyright laws, so if we want to improve the education of all the people in the world, let’s look for really big solutions. Giving them books online that they either don’t want to read or don’t have the machines to use to read won’t transform their lives.

Jacob John McCarter (profile) says:

For this to truly be open I see it as something that must be done with thick intrinsic viscosity and in doing so would take far to long for those thinking in extrinsic avenues (money, advertising, etc.) to back it. Also coming into play are infinite capyright issues which I will not go into as you are already here at techdirt reading and would be in sad shape not to know about. Instead of writing a page on the subject of an open national library (God bless those that would get to the bottom of it) I say that I would gladly scan and submit books I own as well as my magazines (which are mostly of the nature of music creation and thoery) due to me being a (sic) musician and DJ as well as an advocate of copyleft and creative commons.

Bruce Burdick (profile) says:

Digital Library? We have it already.

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, P2P.

The Digital Library is here, and in a big way. Everyone can be an author and publish internationally. We call it the Internet.

For those really great works of great value, so is copyright protection.

The lucrative successes of JK Rowling, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and numerous others under copyright protection encourages new authors to dare to be great. Provided we keep their reward sufficient to keep them encouraged, and provide an avenue for those who want to publish without compensation other than notoriety, all should continue to do well in the digital world.

Even audiobooks are are readily available (www.audible.com)

Thomas Paine, the early 18th century pamphleteer and
American Revolutionary hero, would be proud of where we are with our modern day equivalents to his Common Sense.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...