A Digital Public Library of America


Robert Darnton has championed the concept of a national digital public library through a series of galvanizing essays in The New York Review of Books.  In October 2010, he convened a community of what Harvard Magazine described as “forty-two leaders of research libraries, major foundations, and national cultural institutions” in Cambridge to discuss strategy for building a digital public library of America.  That same month, Darnton’s opening talk at that conference was published in the New York Review of Books.  His The Library: Three Jeremiads, appeared in NYRB in December, further delineating the complex relation between digital libraries and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.  Details of the conference were published both by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education and by the Harvard Magazine, which cited Darnton as describing the project as

the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress…bringing millions of books and digitized material in other media within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any individual with access to the Internet.

Responses to the concept of constructing a national digital public library have been positive.  In December, David Rothman published “Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System” in the Atlantic, arguing that one of the benefits of the project is that it digitizes more than the commercial selections offered by Kindle’s and iPad’s digitization projects: significantly, it digitizes library books.  Referring to a digital public library, Rothman claims it’s a cause

I’ve publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog?

Rothman departs or seems to depart from Darnton, however, over the issue of access.  Rothman wants the digital public library to be a genuine public library, open to all citizens, not simply those affiliated with research libraries.

Details of the plans continue to emerge.  Michael Kelly provides an overview of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society and its plans for a year of workshops regarding the project in Library Journal.com.  Recently (Feb. 18th), Jennifer Howard again interviewed Darnton for the Chronicle of Higher Education to obtain updates on the progress made by Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society on the Digital Public Library of America.

Now that Oxford and Cambridge are making plans to digitize their backlists, this may be a good time to discuss the benefits and consequences of having a national digital public library.  Will digital books be read?  Do readers need POD (Print-on-Demand) options?  Is this project getting the attention it deserves?



18 Responses to “A Digital Public Library of America”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks so much, Anna, for this excellent look at recent developments in plans/calls for a National Digital Library. Although we had touched upon Darnton’s interest in such a venture in The Case for Books post, and again this past fall (though I can’t seem to find the post) when Darnton met with a group composed of scholars, philanthropic leaders, and others and concluded that funds could indeed be raised to construct a digital library, we have not devoted a post to this topic. And the subject well deserves a post all its own.

    Rothman’s desire for truly public access–a digital library open to all, not just academics and other researchers—raises interesting questions about how widespread and valued such a library would be in the United States. At a time when calls are being made to cut education, libraries, NPR, and more, one could see such a project receiving little support or even interest among the general public—even if the project was funded through private means.

    France and other European countries seem to have been ahead of the U.S. in such projects. Over a year ago, the Bibliothèque nationale de France had been embarking on working with Google to further its digitization efforts, and this potential partnership created such an uproar that President Sarkozy committed $1.1 billion to ensure that France maintained control over its literary heritage. Yet, despite this significant pledge of government funds, the need for private support was also well recognized.

    Digitalization by Cambridge University Library received a huge boost last spring when Dr Leonard Polonsky pledged a £1.5m, money that would fund the necessary infrastructure for digitizing CUL’s holdings, beginning with material falling under Faith/Religion and Science. News accounts of this project have hailed it as the makings of Digital Library for the 21st Century. Dr. Polonsky “hoped the project would open a dialogue between libraries worldwide. On one blog announcement about this project, Grant Young, the manager of the CUL digital library project, has clarified that this project is not aiming to reproduce all of CUL’s holdings—an effort he notes would be far too costly and would also “duplicate material freely available elsewhere (e.g. via Google or the Internet Archive).” Rather, the focus is on special collections materials, especially manuscripts.

    Given the unimaginable enormity of the task of digitizing all of a nation’s books—not mention all those in the world—this attention to extant digital copies seems crucial. So too does collaboration or at least coordination of such projects across the globe. Thus, to answer Anna’s query about whether Darnton et. al.’s plans for a digital library is receiving the necessary attention, it would seem that it is not. Not only does this project need to be brought to the forefront of conversations about the future of scholarly work in the digital age nationally, but it and the many others taking place across the world need to be placed in dialogue with one another.


  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor, for providing that international perspective. We need to be mindful of that.

    I have a naive question that won’t go away, and it has to do with shifting platforms. The concept of a national digital public library sounds great. I’m all for it. But how do we know that media won’t evolve in unexpected ways? Right now, those who can afford them can purchase e-readers, but each e-reader accesses only a subset of available e-texts. Is digital reading environmentally or economically sustainable? Will e-readers keep shifting so that in addition to purchasing computers and renewing cable subscriptions for internet access, we also have to purchase new e-readers every few years? Will a digital library really advance literacy? Will we have to be in a public library or university library to access this material? If so, will changing notions of privacy affect reading and what gets read? Will students read lengthy digital books?

    I’m all for a national digital public library, but I’d like to hear someone address these practical questions.


  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Anna, we don’t know that media won’t evolve in unexpected ways! An advantage, it seems, of Google’s entrance into ebooks is its use of cloud computing and the ability to access your books in a variety of ways through various platforms:

    Google eBooks are stored in the cloud, so if you plan to read on the web using your computer, tablet, or on your phone, there is no file to download and you can read ebooks directly within the browser or application. If you plan to read using an eReader, you should learn more about the available ePub and PDF file formats, and how to transfer Google eBook files onto your eReader. A small number of ebooks may not be enabled for download to your eReader due to limits set by the publisher; those ebooks will display an alert message (“No download files included”) before you purchase or get the ebook.

    That’s why some industry experts have said that Google editions are a game-changer. I suspect others are working on similar access to texts.


  4. David Rothman Says:

    Many thanks for the original mention, and E.S.’s interest as well; but I don’t think we can just write off conservatives as enemies of a national digital library proposal–even the current Republican Congress. The key is to make the virtual library system responsive to the actual needs of citizens as a whole, not just the usual suspects. Also, politicians need to be educated on the economies of e-books and other electronic media.

    In depth, I’ll be addressing the conservative angle soon in the LibraryCity.org blog or elsewhere. While I cannot guarantee that all conservatives or even most conservatives will support the library idea, we should remember how quickly the political and ideological winds can shift in D.C. We need to think long-term. Significantly, William F. Buckley Jr., my political opposite, loved the national library idea–writing two columns in favor of it during the 1990s. He especially liked the cost-justification aspect of my plan (described in depth in one of my pieces on TheAtlantic.com site), and perhaps certain GOP politicians today will, too.

    As for evolving technology and future books–well, perhaps the very existence of a well-stocked national digital library system could influence matters for the better, especially if it addressed such issues as access to the proper tech to enjoy the content, as well as integration with local schools and libraries. I’m not afraid of Google’s books-in-the-cloud approach; I’d love for a national digital library system to offer that as one of the options for users. Perhaps Google could even be among the contractors (disclosure: I’m a very small Google shareholder, even if you’d never know this from my stand on the proposed GB settlement). No need to buy e-readers every year, by the way; that’s why technical standards exist and should be a core part of a national digital library plan.

    In my Chronicle of Higher Education essay (http://chronicle.com/article/Its-Time-for-a-National/126489/) I told what a truly comprehensive library approach would involve. I want academic libraries strengthened, just as Robert Darnton does, but that is only part of the equation. Indeed, Prof. Darnton himself talks about people in the middle of nowhere being able to benefit from the great classics, and I’m wholeheartedly share his dream. It’s just that we need so much more. My hope is that we can be achieve this through a mix of public and private models–the best way to encourage freedom of expression and a diversity of content. In the forthcoming essay, I’ll supply details.

    Meanwhile I appreciate your interest in these issues and hope that you’ll encourage people to see the glories of a truly comprehensive solution. Remember, America’s universities must work with the products of K-12.

    David Rothman
    Co-founder, LibraryCity.org


  5. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thank you, David Rothman, for this important extension of the discussion.

    Are we sure that Robert Darnton’s plan for a digital library is limited to universities? And, if so, is there a financial or practical reason for this limitation? The more we know about why such limitations exist, the better equipped we will be to overcome them.

    Again, thanks for the comment and its links.


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, David, many thanks for your contribution; we very much appreciate your paricipation in this conversation.

    Rather than proposing a plan that is limited to universities and their academic libraries, Darnton suggests otherwise by referring to his plans for a “Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), as this post’s heading reinforces. It is perhaps the environment in which he is developing this plan–the university and the philanthropic foundations that support advanced research–that color it as one limited to this group. Yet, as Darnton himself states in “Can We Create a National Digital Library?” such a entity

    will promote the general goal of providing the American people with the kind of library they deserve, the kind that meets the needs of the twenty-first century. We can equip the smallest junior college in Alabama and the remotest high school in North Dakota with the greatest library the world has ever known. We can open that library to the rest of the world, exercising a kind of “soft power” that will increase respect for the United States worldwide. By creating a National Digital Library, we can make our fellow citizens active members of an international Republic of Letters, and we can strengthen the bonds of citizenship at home.

    This description, offered just a few months ago for a plan that is still evolving, intimates a broad, inclusive vision.


  7. David Rothman Says:

    I appreciated your further thoughts, Anna and Eleanor, and I absolutely agree that scholars need to care far more than they now do about digital library issues. But even that is not enough. Especially amid all the pleas to improve American education, the digital library issue should be part of our mainstream national agenda, complete with “Meet the Press” mentions. What’s education without content?

    Yes, as I wrote in my earlier comment, Robert Darnton “talks about people in the middle of nowhere being able to benefit from the great classics”; furthermore, I’ve noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education essay that he does not specifically exclude non-academic content. On the Atlantic site, I earlier recognized that he “wants mass access.” Instead the issue is, “Exactly what content would his executed vision include?” Going by the number of actual mentions, Prof. Darnton has focused on potential library items of the “Republic of Letters” variety as opposed to, say, popular versions of medical information or e-books and multimedia for small business owners or for workers hoping to gain new skills. And, of course, as you’re aware, the DPLA project has university origins.

    Very smartly, the DPLA has consulted with a number of people about the range of material covered, and beyond that, I’m pleased that the organization started the wiki and email list. But Prof. Darnton is the soul of the project, despite the brilliant, hardworking, and well-intentioned people joining him, including Steering Committee Chair John Palfey; and it is easy to identify the Professor’s own priorities, which I in fact love—just so DPLA does not become a public library replacement in cyberspace or even partly preempt actual public libraries online; instead it should enrich them.

    Besides, a national digital library system would be a huge undertaking. However valuable–it is!–DPLA isn’t the organization to accomplish this. We badly need a genuinely public digital system, ideally working within the Library of Congress (as long as it respects local libraries and others and avoids an oppressive top-down approach), so the system can scale up and be truly universal not only in reaching all socioeconomic groups in all states, but also in the range of content. Practically speaking, Anna, that’s no small part of the connection between financing and the breadth and size of the library. So far Prof. Darnton’s talk has been mainly of private funding (reflecting his own impressive set of contacts, skills, and experiences), and I do think that should be the major source of support for his project, but a public system should use all the models and go after, yes, public money, among other kinds. Isn’t a library system as deserving of it as the Pentagon or agricultural subsidies?

    Let me emphasize that this is more than “either or.” As a system and individually, public libraries could reproduce and link to DPLA content. I just would like the public digital library system to be separate, with a different vision, even if it cooperates extensively with DPLA. Does Prof. Darnton want to worry about his passions competing so directly at budget time with, say, the priorities of those wanting more funding for K-12 textbooks or multimedia for job training? A dual-model, dual-organization approach, furthermore, would create more freedom of expression for digital humanists and make it easier for them to raise funds for specialized projects whose angels have their own focuses and preferences and might not trust the public system.

    Presently, as indicated by the wiki, the DPLA’s business model is still up in the air. Dropping the “Public” from the name would reassure public librarians while at the same time the DPLA mission statement could still make clear that the group was devoted to both direct access and access through public libraries. A win for all, especially Bob Darnton if he wants to remain true to his vision!

    I hope this helps. I’ve just posted further thoughts (which I’ll be further proofing and otherwise tweaking). See URL below from LibraryCity.org.

    David (Rothman)

    A national digital library system for George Roper in McAllen, Texas, please–not just the American elite–and don’t write off conservatives

    Note: My own politics are very much on the progressive side.


  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    There’s so much meat for further discussion here (David’s comments, Amanda’s post on the Korean NDL, and the choice of material (as well as the material itself) on the DPLA Wiki, but for now I will just offer some brief comments.

    In some ways Library of Congress would seem the ideal place to help spearhead what David is urging–and I believe that there would be at least some internal support for such work. Yet, I am not confident about external support. From those I know at the Library, I don’t see the danger of a lack of respect for local libraries or an interest in intruding on their governance/affairs. I hope to say more on this later when time permits.

    I too wish we could see/hear mention of digital library projects in ‘Meet the Press’ venues, but we don’t. And I am also not always certain how much we truly value education in the U.S. despite how much the issue is discussed. From the Koreans I’ve met and from the students I’ve known who have taught in Korea, it seems that it is nation whose value of education is translated regularly into action.

    Finally, the Consortium formed in Korea that Amanda French discusses:

    In 2002, an assessment of a Korean digital library effort for university researchers called the Research Information Service System (RISS) discovered that 95% of its users were seriously frustrated by their inability to access the full text of foreign journal articles. Korean libraries simply could not afford to pay the permission fees. Four years later, in 2006, Korea had formed a consortium: the Korea Electronic Site License Initiative (KESLI), partly modeled on OhioLink, increased “the use levels of scholarly information to six times higher than average than before.”

    recalls the discussions we have had about that need in the U.S. (though admittedly we were using the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), “established by the UK further and higher education funding councils in 2006 to negotiate with publishers and owners of digital content,” as a model, and our discussions were directed within the context of higher education.


  9. David Rothman Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. Deanna Marcum at LOC is well respected by librarians and the DPLA people, and I think the DPLA should clarify matters, immediately, by recognizing that LOC should do the public side. Meanwhile the DPLA could focus on Republic of Letters-style activities so dear to Bob Darnton and work to enrich public and academic libraries rather than _be_ the system or the main infrastructure provider. That’s it in a nutshell.

    A good start would be for the DPLA and LOC to cooperate on a separate LOC-oriented wiki–with, however, some overlapping pages covering shared interests such as technology and the relationships between various organizations. With more structure and fewer ambiguities, the NDL movement might draw more attention, especially with LOC raising its profile here. That could also result in a significant amount of public money in time. LOC is, after all, the Library of _Congresss_. See my LibraryCity.org essay from yesterday mentioning the political angles.

    As for Amanda French’s fascinating post, I think a U.S. version of the Korean’s mini-knowledge center would be fun, but I would rather see the money go for basics like redundant, distributed preservation (very much in keeping with the LOC’s current goals as I understand them). Let the headquarters be within an existing LOC building–good both in terms of politician-pleasing economy and in terms of helping the virtual sufficiently reflect the physical holdings of LOC.

    Unified negotiations with vendors via a consortium and/or a unit with the NDL system? Absolutely. The Harper26Collins outrage shows the need for libraries to acquire more control over their destinies.


  10. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Robert Darnton’s op-ed on the rejected settlement published on March 24 in the NYTimes pertains to this discussion.


  11. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Darnton’s closing remarks recognizes the significant role Google has played in illustrating the value of the digital for our intellectual life.

    As Darnton reminds us, other countries have already undertaken the task of creating national digital libraries. He also mentions the possibility of Google assisting in this project, and I would hope that it would be willing to do so. Interestngly, as noted above, it was Google’s potential involvement in French efforts to digitize its colleaction that resulted in the French government’s stepping up and supplying funds.


  12. David Rothman Says:

    The Darnton vision in the NYT is stellar, as usual, but it doth not a public library make. America needs so much more than simply digitized collections of research libraries and the like. Meanwhile, sigh, the DPLA has yet to drop the the P.



  13. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    To realize either Darnton’s vision or a truly all-encompassing Public Digital library will require many partners and collaborators. Google spurred interest and jump-started such projects, and Darnton’s letter about his DPLA vision is fostering greater public awareness of the need. I imagine that you will reply to his letter, David, and thus raise the issue of what “Public Library” really means.


  14. David Rothman Says:

    I agree with everything above, Eleanor–especially the chances of my replying to the op-ed. In fact, I already have emailed the Times. Prof. Darnton’s commentary very helpfully raised public aware of the national digital library issue, yes, just like his other writings; and I’m gung ho about research university collections being online for free with fair compensation for copyright-holders. I just wish that Prof. Darnton and friends would kindly drop the P word if they care about the franchise and branding of genuine public libraries.


    • Anna Battigelli Says:


      Are you concerned that public libraries will disappear if there’s a digitized collection? I’m trying to understand you objection more clearly.


  15. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Good–I’m glad that you’ve already contacted the NY Times. I do think the more this conversation enters the public realm, the more the plans for a digital library can be advanced and the more it can be honed in terms of its focus and scope. There’s plenty of work, and many are needed.


  16. David Rothman Says:

    Publibs won’t vanish overnight, Anna, but long term, yes, there are risks, and the DPLA does not help matters by clinging to the word “Public.”

    Already some foes of public libraries cite Google or other online content as a reason why publibs should be allowed to fade away or outsourced to for-profit companies. And now the DPLA wittingly or unwittingly is chipping away at the very special meaning of the term “public library” in the U.S.? See Web address below.

    Remember, too, that my objection is not to a Darnton-style “Republic of Letters” collection per se, of which I heartily approve. Rather it is to the misuse of the words “public library” and the possible preemption of a genuine full-service public digital system with public governance. Thanks.



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