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.