Libraries, the universe and everything

Digital Public Library of America
January 19, 2012, 12:48
Filed under: CPD, Events, Libraries

On January 17th I attended a lecture given by Professor Robert Darnton, hosted by SCONUL and JISC at the Royal Society, on “The Digital Public Library of America: Current Plans and Future Prospects”. I feel I ought to say at the outset that I’m not an afternoon person, and I did find it difficult to get into the right mode as the session began, particularly as there were three separate introductions before Darnton stepped up to the microphone. I probably ought to have been expecting something like this, given that the event was jointly hosted, and fortunately a video of the event will appear on the JISC website in due course so I can catch up on what I might have missed! I’d also really recommend Simon Barron’s fantastic post about it as Simon’s writing is so much better than mine, and I’m currently admiring and envying this in equal measures!

In explaining some of the thinking behind the DPLA project Darnton quoted Thomas Jefferson:

“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, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

For what it’s worth I think this a(nother) fantastic piece of writing, and just as important today as when it was originally written (source here).

Darnton then went on to acknowledge that whilst access to knowledge has a clear public benefit it is not costless, before embarking on a sustained critique of the failures of the Google Book Search project and the hugely negative impact of the biggest STEM journal publishers on the dissemination of medical and scientific knowledge. The latter point will be of no surprise to academic and serials librarians everywhere, and it’s an important issue to raise – particularly as it provides a neat antithesis to the sentiments described by Jefferson – but in this context I felt it was a bit of a red herring.

Darnton continued to describe the thinking behind the DPLA idea, where they are with it at present, and what will happen going forwards. There is lots of information about all this on the DPLA website, and I encourage you to have a look at it. As I understand it, the essence of the project is to create a single entry-point to digital collections across America, bringing together free-at-the-point-of-access resources from a huge range of places and making them available to all sorts of people.

I can’t even begin to find the words to say how impressive I find this project, and how important I think it might be, but once I began to understand what it was all about I became rather cross that Darnton had begun with the journal pricing problems. Even if all publishers decided to make their digital content entirely Open Access something like the DPLA would still be necessary, for exactly the same reasons as it will be useful for collections which are already free to access.  In our information-saturated world tracking down the right resources to search in the first place can be a huge problem, and federated search across lots of quality resources through an authoritative entry point is always going to be valuable.

I was also a bit disappointed at the end as there was no discussion, just a q&a session with Darnton. Whilst David Baker was an excellent chair, both lining up questions and soliciting comments from particular audience members, I felt it would have been a great opportunity for a wider discussion within the room, and given the mix of delegates this could have produced some fascinating outcomes. That said the questions and points of view raised were all useful and interesting, and they drew out some of the themes of the main talk. (On a slightly irrelevant note I was also really pleased I’d attended an event on copyright so recently as it meant I could understand some of the issues which came up within the talk and in the questions afterwards!)

All in all it was a really interesting afternoon, and one which I’m very glad to have attended, despite my gripes about some parts of it. Darnton was an engaging and interesting speaker, the subject is tremendously significant, and I very much hope that the digital library endeavours on both sides of the Atlantic come to fulfil their potential.

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