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One Step Closer to a National Digital Library

Can the nonprofit world create a national digital library to put America’s collective intellectual wealth within everyone’s reach? Robert Darnton, the historian who directs the Harvard University Library, has been one of the most public champions of the idea.

This past weekend, Mr. Darnton convened a group of 42 top-level representatives from foundations, cultural institutions, and the library and scholarly worlds to talk about how to build that library. In a short statement, the group endorsed the idea of “a Digital Public Library of America,” envisioning it as “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources” drawn from the country’s libraries, archives, museums, and universities.

The Chronicle tallked with Mr. Darnton about the discussions and what will happen next. Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle to the Digital Public Library, in his view, is not money but “finding our way through our baroque copyright laws,” especially those that govern so-called orphan works, whose copyright status is unclear.

Q. Who attended?

A. People were banging on the door, and everyone I invited said yes. …The turnout from foundations was wonderful, and that’s important because one idea is to create a coalition of foundations who would fund this. If you got enough foundations committed to it, you can finance it. [Note: Mr. Darnton said representatives from several research institutions and from major cultural institutions also took part, but he had promised not to make their names public yet. Several senior scholars, including law professors well versed in copyright law, also sat in.]

Q. What was the tenor of the meeting?

A. I’m biased, but I think it was a huge success. Everyone I talked to told me that they were delighted and determined to move on to the next steps and committed to the cause. One of the things that I found especially heartening about it was the fact that everyone checked their egos at the door. The idea of a national digital library has been in the air for a long time, and there was a danger that some people would feel that it’s their property, so to speak. But I did not detect any proprietary sensitivity among the group. The discussion was open and frank, and I believe it arrived at a consensus.

Q. What was the consensus?

A. The agreement was very solid about the desirability of this thing, and then there was discussion about what “this” was. In general, I think it fair to say, everyone thought the library should be one for the American people, by which I mean not an exclusive research library but a grand collection of books that could be used in junior colleges and high schools and institutions of every sort throughout the country. …It simply is not true that everything is now on the Internet, but it is true that the digital resources available through the Internet have enormous potential for education and even for self-empowerment of individuals. So I imagine people in remote locations, armed with a computer or perhaps computerless, but with access to a small public library, being able to consult a collection as great as or greater than the 30 million books in the Library of Congress.

One of the first things we discussed was the financial problem. It didn’t take long for people there to arrive at a conclusion, which is: We can do it. Everyone seemed convinced that this is certainly within the scope of a funding campaign by foundations. There were different estimates as to the total cost, and of course those estimates depend on the size and scale of what we have in mind, but everyone agreed we could do this. [Here Mr. Darnton pointed to studies that Harvard has done of digital-library projects in other countries, including the Netherlands and Norway.] So we have a lot of information about costs.

Q. Was Google a focus of the conversation?

A. This was not in the slightest an anti-Google or counter-Google project. Google was hardly mentioned. One institution or entity that has resulted from Google Book Search is the Hathi Trust. …Hathi was mentioned, and my own hope is that the Hathi Trust could somehow evolve to become a fundamental building block of a future digital library. And that would, I think, require the agreement of Google. So although we weren’t really proposing in the slightest an alternate to Google, my own hope is that Google would be persuaded to turn over its digital files of books in the public domain to a future national digital library. Will it? I don’t know. But that would be a great service to the country, and I don’t see how it would damage Google’s interests in the slightest.

Q. What happens now?

A. We want to create a coalition of foundations to fund it. …A second step is to bring together leaders of cultural institutions to mobilize support in Washington. …We expect to have a follow-up conference in the spring.

It’s not as if we are just issuing high-minded manifestos. We are taking concrete steps at the organizational level.

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