September 18, 2009 Ben Peters

Robert Darnton and the Future of the Library

Trinity College Library, Dublin, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth I

Last night I attended a lecture from Robert Darnton, the preeminent historian of 18th century France and Harvard’s Library Director. His lecture was titled “Google, Libraries, and the Digital Future” and is only one among the impressive Fall 2009 lineup at Columbia’s Heyman Center for Humanities. The lecture came in the wake of Darnton’s most recent piece, “Google and the Future of Books,” in the New York Review of Books, and more importantly, the groundbreaking open-source Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) initiative led by the new Office for Scholarly Communication. (Note: I am saving his treatment of the Google book settlement for a later post. Here I am mainly interested in taking stock of a refreshing vision of open-source scholarship from a historian I respect highly.) 

Darnton came across to me as an archetypal figure in a new class of open-source advocates: a mixture of established man of letters and one who takes delight in slightly perverse and totally public revolution. A career historian of the history of the book, especially the business history of the book around the French Enlightenment, Darnton has spent his life immersed in the world of books: he unearths, reads, studies, and writes books about books for a living. (The most famous is his wonderful The Great Cat Massacre, a thick description of how young servants found hilarity and political protest in killing the cats of their abusive aristocratic masters.) He gets books: they are not about romantic authorship or royalties. Books are about their readers and eye-opening discoveries. They are most useful when they are read, and many, many books are not read simply because the archives and special collections are not public. A few choice quotes from last night include his calling the 10 million volumes scanned in Google Book Search “the greatest monopoly in the history of this country” as well as two chord progressions straight from the Electronic Frontier Foundation playbook: “digitize and democratize” and “openness is the guiding principle.”

Behind the scholarly cautions and curtain of his talk there creeps a romantic notion of the benevolent pirate, a literary Robin Hood redistributing the royalty’s wealth to the poor (pardon the pun; the double meaning of royalty does not strike me as entirely innocent). “There is a lot to be said for piracy,” he remarked, fondly noting how 18th-century publishers raced to sell the most pirated copies of a bestseller to the waiting (and minuscule) literate public. Later he added “my heart is with the pirates.” On the longevity of copyright terms, he stirred applause with the line “the founding fathers got it right; Hollywood got it wrong.”

While he remains ambiguous on the details, the broad strokes of his vision of the future of the library are worth noting: the cost of open-source academic publication should be born at the production end, or by the institutions that house the authors themselves. The author’s institution pays fees to have their work published in open-source journals, so long as journals wave fees for those authors whose institutions cannot afford to cover the fee. The open-access scholarly subsidy will make it possible, he hopes, to displace the outlandishly expensive current commercial academic journal system with open-access equivalents. (For a civil disobedience response, see Mako Hill’s overprice tags.) And the fee waiver, in theory at least, lowers the entrance barrier to scholars in developing countries.

Taken to its unalloyed extreme, the future of Darnton’s library takes two forms: one, an omnipresent digital platform for maintaining public access to all current scholarship. Think a full-view Google Book Search without the possibility of corporate “cocaine pricing.” (You know, the first hit is free….) Two, a network of physical libraries devoted to accruing and preserving only the archives, special collections, and rare book libraries. On the first, digital scholarship online will fulfill what he calls “The Oberlin Argument”: solid schools without substantial libraries could massively benefit by digital access to the world’s books. (Had he called it “The Obafemi Awolowo Argument,” a university in southwest Nigeria, the global reach of the argument would be clearer.) Here his concern for the public good strike me as being colored by the question of the 18th century French publishers he studies: how does one get pirated materials to a privileged few, to the already academic elite? But never mind in whose name the plan is justified. Having spent his life successfully struggling to access and discover the obscured word (including The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France), Darnton wants now to reveal both the hidden and forbidden word to the world. His public view shares the promiscuous tone of the professional archivist: we must try to save, store, and share everything within reason. 

“The future strength” of conventional research libraries, he argues, will be “special collections rare books and archives.” It is, in many ways I think, the historian’s dream: a series of warehouse devoted to only the gray literature which cannot be found elsewhere. He points out that no single library acquisition budget can possibly manage to house an adequate range of available special collections and thus calls for academic libraries to form coalitions, to perfect inter-library loan, and to divide special collections topically among their allies. Columbia’s library system, led by Kenneth Crews, among other enlightened copyright moderates, is expected to join the compact on open access publication currently shared between five leading American universities. He argues against the “once hopelessly utopian” vision of the universal library with his own only slightly utopian vision. Yes, he realizes, digitization saps printed material of its lived quality: here he relates a memorable example of his reading Melville’s copy of Emerson’s “Prudence” in the Rare Books room as a freshman: no digital scan could ever impress him as deeply as hefting the book in his own hands. (Others have pointed out that medical researchers have used smell of vinegar to date cholera epidemics in archival documents: digits can reproduce, with loss, natural oral and literary senses but not yet taste, smell, pain, balance, and touch.)

Still, whatever its limitations, digitization opens the rare book room to the world. Add an affable, squirrely grin to the mix, and one gets Darnton’s vision of the future of the library. It is one where digital and printed material are not in competition: digital libraries will not replace the printed book. It may not even displace it. Instead, he sees “a revival of the printed book” in the arrival of Espresso book machines that can print and bind a book on demand in about as many minutes as dollars. (His Espresso book machine is only a moderate version of fascinating developments currently underway in additive manufacturing, especially 3D printing.) In my opinion, his slightly utopian vision is far preferable to both recent and perennial rehearsals of the decline of all things literate (such as this Washington Post article) as well as its opposite, as he put it, the “once hopelessly utopian” dream of the universal library.

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