The impact of a universal public library today can be compared to that of Gutenberg’s printing press, in that it could provide an unprecedented number of people speedy access to a wealth of information. It makes a vast collection of rare resources readily available to people who, without such a service, would seldom be granted such access, not to forget that a digital copy is less vulnerable to decay and may be used indefinitely, allowing unrestricted access to even the rarest materials. “The [Digital Public Library of America] must respect copyright,” writes Robert Darnton in the April 28th issue of the New York Review of Books. “In order to succeed where Google failed, it will have to include several million orphan books; and it will not be able to do that unless Congress clears the way by appropriate legislation.”
Darnton, director of the Harvard University Libraries, is among many supporters of the DPLA that are invigorated by this premise. “This is an opportunity for those of us who care about creating a non-commercial public digital library to get on with it.” Evidence that such an enterprise can thrive is apparent in Europe, where several digitization projects have already garnered much success. Europeana, a rather young but well-structured pan-European digital library, functions more or less as a hub for integrated collections throughout Europe rather than a unified collection. Europeana is modestly funded by the European Union, while the chief financial responsibility falls on the participating libraries, which are centralized and operate on government subsidies. In the United States the obvious challenge is that “we have many different kinds of institutions and many different funding streams,” says Library of Congress’s Deanna Marcum, a member of the steering committee. Darnton is more optimistic: “Americans benefit from something that Europe lacks: a rich array of independent foundations dedicated to the public welfare.” While a concrete budget estimate is arguably senseless at this stage, it is feasible that enough funding could be drummed up for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to get off the ground.
The DPLA can learn much from Europeana, even if it is still a young enterprise, but there are numerous other European digital libraries in the works that lead the way in innovation. National digital libraries in Norway and the Netherlands have found cooperative ways to reconcile copyright holders with the premise of digitizing their books without the threat of legal ramifications. Perhaps more challenging is the conundrum of observing international copyright law—something that Google ignored at the onset of its digitization journey. As a possible solution, Darnton suggests: “The copyright problems connected with the works produced outside the United States might be resolved by agreements between the DPLA and Europeana as well as by similar alliances with aggregators on other continents.”
In the general scope of things, a non-profit venture such as the DPLA faces less scrutiny than a money-hungry Google and may find fewer legal road blocks thanks to its non-commercial nature. Furthermore, much can be learned from Google’s faults, awarding the DPLA a far more advantageous starting point, and a greater likelihood of success.
As far as the settlement, the conversation continues and Daniel Clancy, engineering director at Google, has vaguely promised to support the DPLA by granting access to some of Google’s digital archives in an effort to “continue to stay engaged and try to be supportive.” There is still much work to do and many kinks to iron out, but whatever becomes of the Digital Public Library of America project, the advent of the Kindle and the iPad is evidence that the face of print media and library services is experiencing some notable changes. If we choose to learn from the past, a universal digital library appears inevitable.