If there is one good outcome from the wreckage of the Google’s effort to digitize the world’s books, it is the push that it gave to librarians like Robert Darnton to find a better way. Google had wanted to build a search service for an enormous number of books, and it went to the trouble of digitizing more than 30 millions of them into a vast database.
The only problem is that the whole enterprise was something of a betrayal of the public domain. The world’s leading university research libraries were providing millions of books for free to Google, which was then planning to sell search subscriptions to these libraries to access the very same books via the Internet. Google also planned to sell the books at whatever prices it wished to set. One can easily imagine a new giant monopoly with a hammerlock on the digitized knowledge of the past century and beyond.
A number of parties, including Robert Darnton, the University Librarian at Harvard, opposed the Google Books project for locking up knowledge on terms set by Google, rather than allowing it to flow freely, without restriction, as is customary in scholarly commons. The Google digital library project was essentially scuttled in March 2011 when a federal court struck down a settlement that had been negotiated among authors, publishers, Google and others. The court held that it contained too many unlawful, unacceptable provisions.
The good news is that some of the leading research universities in the US have risen to the challenge of creating a better, more accessible knowledge commons. On April 18, the Digital Public Library of America will be launched as a way to make the holdings of US libraries, museums and archives freely accessible to anyone via the Internet. The project represents a grand coalition of collaboration among leading university libraries, foundations and scholars. DPLA describes itself as “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives and museums in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Darnton explains the planning, rationale and future of the DPLA in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.
The project started as a group of forty people meeting in 2010 at Harvard – but it has since grown to be a large, networked affair driven by volunteers, crowdsourcing, open discussions and workshops, and plenary meetings open to the public in major cities. The DPLA’s new platform will provide links to participating institutions and rely on metadata describing content and on open APIs (application programming interfaces) that will allow self-organized linkages and apps to be developed.
The whole system will grow organically over time as more and more libraries connect to the system, using the DPLA protocols. With giants like Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution and the Internet Archive committed to the DPLA – along with dozens of other, smaller institutions, including forty state digital libraries – the DPLA platform is likely to flourish and grow. Even better, the DPLA infrastructure has been designed to be interoperable with Europeana, the digital aggregator created by the European Union that connects to 27 European countries.
There are complications in evolving the DPLA forward, namely certain copyright restrictions that are bothersome or unresolved. In this time of austerity, it is also likely that the project could move slowly because of limited budgets for digitizing works and for creating more efficient computer “backends,” better metadata, and so forth. But that should not detract from the significant achievement that the DPLA represents: a shared, technically advanced platform upon which a vast new commons of knowledge can be built and to which thousands upon thousands of institutions can contribute, and receive.
A hearty welcome, then, to the arrival of the Digital Public Library of America – and a thank-you to the visionary libraries, scholars, foundations and others who helped make this happen. It is rare these days for such ambitious, open-ended projects to be imagined, let alone organized and launched. The DPLA is a really big idea – a new commons infrastructure – that seems destined to be a wild, brilliant success.