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National Digital Library Spurs Conversation About ‘Cultural Patrimony’

Robert Darnton, the historian who directs Harvard University’s library, recently hosted a high-level gathering to talk about how to put together a Digital Public Library of America. In some of his public comments about the proposed library, Mr. Darnton wrote that it “would make the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens.”

The phrase “cultural patrimony” caught the attention of some observers, including Paul Courant, the dean of libraries at the University of Michigan and a participant in the Harvard meeting led by Mr. Darnton. On his blog, Mr. Courant reiterated his support for the general idea. But “the notion of a national collection based on any nation’s ‘cultural patrimony’ is far too narrow,” he wrote. “It simply doesn’t make sense to divide this country’s cultural patrimony from that of the rest of the world.  (And I have to admit that I’m not wild about the word ‘patrimony,’ either. Many have suggested that ‘heritage’ would be better, and I believe that Robert Darnton would accept this as a friendly amendment.)”

In a comment posted on Mr. Courant’s blog, Mr. Darnton took the suggestion. “Not only does ‘heritage’ have a happier ring to it, but it also evokes a more important point: Our cultural heritage in the United States is fundamentally international,” the Harvard scholar wrote. He said that in his opening remarks at the conference, which invoked the Founding Fathers, he “meant to evoke the Enlightenment ideal of a Republic of Letters, which is international by its very nature.  So are our great research libraries,” he said. “Most of their material is in languages other than English. By amalgamating their holdings in a single digital collection, a DPLA would attempt to make all of the world’s learning available to all the people in the world.”

The Darnton-Courant exchange is worth reading in full, not only for the conceptual discussion described above but also for the authors’ thoughts about how to tackle the “fundamental problem” of copyright and what role the HathiTrust and Google might play in establishing the proposed digital public library.

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