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Free to All

Some have detected a revolutionary message behind the choice of today as the date to launch the Digital Public Library of America—a project to make the holdings of libraries, archives, and museums freely available in digital form to all Americans. They’re right.

“On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five,” as Longfellow put it in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” Paul Revere did not merely warn the farmers of Lexington and Concord that the redcoats were coming. His “midnight message” was a call for liberty. To free Americans’ access to knowledge may not be so dramatic, but it is equally important; for Revere and all the founding fathers knew that a republic could not flourish unless its citizens were educated and informed.

Nor is it a coincidence that the launching pad of the Digital Public Library of America is the Boston Public Library, the first great public library in America, which proclaims in letters chiseled over its main entrance, “Free to All.” That is the revolutionary message of the DPLA. It will make our country’s heritage available to everyone and at no charge: “Free to All.”

The tragic disaster at the Boston Marathon took place just across from the library and made it necessary to cancel today’s launch event. But a virtual launch will occur as planned, so the DPLA will begin to operate online at noon today. By persevering with its mission, the DPLA will pay tribute to the spirit of freedom embodied by the library and to the courage of everyone who coped so bravely with the disaster.

Speaking as one who has spent most of his life studying the revolutions of the 18th century, I believe that the term “revolution” is overused. I have read about a “revolution” in men’s wear and “revolutionary” changes in football coaching. But the Internet has brought a genuine revolution into everyone’s life, one that is every bit as momentous as the transformation wrought by Gutenberg.

Don’t think that this revolution is merely technological. We are participating in something greater than the greatest algorithm. It is the democratization of access to knowledge, but it owes a great deal to technology.

Paul Revere depended on a signal transmitted by two lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church, in Boston. He carried his message on a horse, and he delivered it by mouth to Sam Adams and John Hancock in Lexington. According to Longfellow, the ride took more than an hour—and “the fate of a nation was riding that night.” Think of it: fateful communication by lantern, horseback, and speech.

Today we have bits and bytes moving at nearly the speed of light. We can send our messages round the world faster than Paul Revere’s horse could blink.

What is that message? “Free to All.” We believe that everyone has a right to search and discover everything accumulated in our libraries, archives, and museums. The entirety of our cultural heritage should be freely available to everyone, not by applying for admission or purchasing a ticket at the door. It is everyone’s right by birth, a birthright that Revere, Hancock, and Adams claimed as free-born Englishmen, who on April 18, 1775, were transforming themselves into revolutionary Americans.

The American revolutionaries believed in the power of the word. But they had only word of mouth and the printing press. We have the Internet. Thanks to modern technology, we now can deliver every text in every research library to every citizen in our country, and to everyone in the world. If we fail to do so, we are not living up to our civic duty.

All of us are citizens in a republic much larger than the Republic of America. It is the Republic of Letters, a realm of the mind that extends everywhere, without police, national boundaries, or disciplinary frontiers. From the age of the Enlightenment it was open to all; but only a few could exercise their citizenship, for only a minority could read or afford to buy books.

I don’t mean to minimize the obstacles to the spread of knowledge today. Aside from the distressing inadequacy of our schools, we face commercial interests that would like to fence off the knowledge that belongs in the public domain and to charge admission for access to it. The DPLA stands for open access—democratization rather than commercialization.

That may sound suspiciously abstract and high-minded. But revolutions challenge us to articulate goals and formulate principles. The DPLA today is only a beginning, a small start down a long road with plenty of bumps, twists, and turns. It will require savvy and street smarts to travel down that road. But as we set out today, we can pause for a moment to contemplate our far–off goal: Armed by the best possible software and hardware, perched on a state-of-the-art platform, linked together in a distributed electronic system, we will open access to knowledge by making it free to all.

Robert Darnton is a professor and university librarian at Harvard University.

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