Harvard’s Librarian on the Google Monopoly
via Blown to Bits on 2/8/09
Robert Darnton, a historian and head of Harvard’s library system, has an important article in the New York Review of Books, called Google and the Future of Books. It lays the utopian Enlightenment vision of a “Republic of Letters” side by side with the development of the Internet. Darnton explains beautifully how the Enlightenment ideal failed to come about (through professionalization and commercialization of knowledge), and warns that we are about to miss another opportunity because of the settlement hammered out between the publishing industry and Google about copyright issues with the Google Books project. The most poignant passage is the following:
Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job [of digitizing the world's books and making them available over the Internet] at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first. … We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.
The article is simple and clear, if a bit tough to read from the 02138 zip code. For Harvard has one of the greatest of university libraries, and though Darnton doesn’t say it, he knows perfectly well that those who came before him at Harvard signed a bad deal with Google, utterly without consultation and public discussion, under unseemly circumstances — as I (as well as others) have previously blogged. We at Harvard helped squander the Enlightenment dream.
Right On Harry! But the dream is not yet gone. We need to intervene in the Google-Publishers Settlement Proceeding to represent the interest of university. Will you join me in advocating that we seek a place at the table in which our future is being shaped?