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A Digital Public Library for America?


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If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one... Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe... seems to have been designed by nature.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to MacPherson, August 13, 1813

The future of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) was the subject of a recent conference at Columbia University. The keynote address on DPLA was given by Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library (and an NYPL Trustee). No one has done more to push the idea of DPLA into the public consciousness than Darnton, who has written numerous articles, testified before both houses of Congress, and sought both public and private support to bring this idea into fruition. Last month there was an announcement that two foundations — the Sloan Foundation and Arcadia Fund — would contribute five million dollars toward its realization. The same day, DPLA announced that it would be collaborating with Europeana, the European digital library project, that has already began aggregating some five million digital objects from research libraries. Darnton now hopes to have some version of DPLA up and running by April 2013.

The objective of DPLA can be summed up as the desire to make as much of the learning and cultural patrimony of the United States in the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences, and other areas of knowledge free and accessible to the citizens of the United States and around the world. The technical backbone of DPLA is the use of free open source code. In order to lay the foundation for its collections, DPLA will begin with works in the public domain (broadly speaking, those published before 1923) that are freely accessible, and many of which have already been digitized. The Library of Congress and the National Archive have both already committed to providing content to DPLA, and it is hoped that the digitized holdings of NYPL, other major research libraries, as well as works already digitized by initiatives like the Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, are set for inclusion in DPLA. DPLA will provide a number of tools to facilitate broad public access to this content.

The next objective of DPLA is to digitize the vast bulk of cultural works that are still in copyright — but long out of print — and, one would think, unlikely to generate any meaningful stream of revenue for those publishers and authors who hold copyright to these works. However, attorneys and lobbyists for publishers and authors who envision an endless "long tail" of sales for these works have strenuously resisted any meaningful change to existing United States copyright law, which in the view of many is both archaic and convoluted. There are now many proposed changes to copyright law that could clear away the roadblocks to the realization of DPLA. One can only hope that the relationship of DPLA with that of the representatives of the authors and publishers becomes, as Tom Allen, President of the American Association of Publishers, suggests, much like that of Humphrey Bogart to Claude Rains (the Vichy official who has just pointedly ignored Bogart’s shooting of a Gestapo Major) at the end of Casablanca: "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

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