TRB Podcast: Robert Darnton and the Digital Public Library of America

Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books. Taken from the PublicAffairs Books press page.

Listen here: [audio:darnton.mp3]

It’s always a pleasure when a favourite author turns out to be as charismatic and compelling in person as they are in print.

That was my experience recently going to see Robert Darnton, University Librarian at Harvard, deliver the Grafstein Lecture in Communications at the University of Toronto law school. I first encountered Darnton’s writing as an undergrad studying French History, when his The Great Cat Massacre was one of the books that inspired me to study French cultural history in grad school. Darnton is also a major figure for book historians, a field he helped originate, and in the study of censorship.

He was in Toronto in yet another incarnation, as a librarian, to discuss the future of books and libraries in a digital age. As a historian of the book, Darnton is particularly well-positioned to put the new explosion of digital publishing into context. He noted that, in fact, more books are still being printed each year than in the previous one. While there are a lot of challenges that come with navigating a new landscape, he argued that print and digital formats are complementary, and that the digital age opens up new possibilities for sharing knowledge.

One of these possibilities, in his mind, is the concept of the online public library. With a team of university libraries and foundations, he is currently in the process of creating a Digital Public Libary of America, with a target launch date of Spring 2013.

He framed the need for this project in terms of whether knowledge is locked permanently into a for-profit system or can be shared freely. The example of scientific journals is telling, where a small number of private companies control the most prestigious titles and charge enormous subscription prices – at times upwards of $20,000 – for material they acquire at minimal cost. Increasing at four times the rate of inflation since 1980, these prices are cutting into libraries’ budgets for the monographs used by humanities scholars.

Darnton then discussed the Google Book Project to digitize university libraries, which was heading in a similar direction, so that Google would have had a virtual monopoly over digital book archives. Darnton was a leading voice against this direction, which he believes is now essentially dead thanks to a court ruling.

The Digital Library of America will be a direct alternative to this model – a service that provides free and open access to knowledge, managed and funded in a distributed way by public and non-profit institutions. It has a strong starting point in public domain works in the digitized collections of libraries. In the US, however, the public domain ends in 1923, and Darnton surveyed the various complications in the copyright status of any work after that date. However, he pointed out that the effective commercial life of most books is short – rarely more than ten years – and he hopes that they will then become part of the DPLA. The concept of “out of print” will become obsolete in the digital world.