The Case for Books by Robert Darnton. Uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age.

The case for booksRobert Darnton was the Director of the Harvard University Library during two important events, the Google Book Search project and the university’s open access movement. In The Case for Books, Darnton provides a perspective on the interplay of private and public interests in libraries.

Google Books involves the digitization of public domain and out-of-print books to form the world’s largest digital library. This project entails scanning the works of research libraries, and Harvard was an initial partner. Darton approves of making books more accessible through digitization, but he is concerned that the libraries who provided these books will have to pay to access them. How high will these costs get? Google is a private enterprise and has an effective monopoly on digital books. Good intentions or not, the profit motive inevitably puts the squeeze on public interests.

The profit motive can also help define the essential niche of libraries. The public library first emerged as a response to the exclusive access of royals to library collections. Darnton predicts that Google Books will make libraries more important than ever. Google will not digitize everything. Copyright still protects new books. Being profit-minded, Google will focus on the 80% of mainstream interest books, not the special collections of research libraries. Scanning causes errors; 99% accuracy is still two or three letters wrong in the average book length paragraph. Version control may be an increasingly important role for research libraries.

In his position at Harvard, Darnton defended a motion in favour of the open access movement. Open access makes scholarly articles available free of charge on the web. It addresses the contradiction of being charged exorbitant rates for freely generated content, crippling libraries and scholarship. As I see it, this long-term interplay of private and public interests may not be an unhealthy one. Private companies tend to lead with innovation, making digital journals available in the first place. I am not sure libraries would have accomplished this feat on their own. Sooner or later, private interests confuse profit as tactic with profit as strategy. It threatens the ability of libraries to provide their service. Open information is the solution. It is a repeating pattern. First there was the open source operating system. Open access to academic journals is another instance. More recently in libraries, we have seen the emergence of the open source ILS to redress gouging by vendors over the years. Open information is a promising pattern.

Darnton uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age. He has creative ideas about the evolution of the ebook, but still prefers the usability of the print book. According to Bowker’s Global Books in Print, more new titles are appearing every year. Soon a million will be published annually. Will digitization ever be able to keep up? It is worth remembering that digits are also a physical resource, with concomitant scarcity. Compound that with the scarcities imposed by copyright and the private interests, we can be sure of the ongoing need for libraries to provide public access to books.

6 Replies to “The Case for Books by Robert Darnton. Uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age.”

  1. “The public library first emerged as a response to the exclusive access of royals to library collections.”

    John, could you speak to this sentence a bit more? Is this a paraphrase of Darnton, or your claim, or something else? I know I’ve primarily only looked at the rise of public libraries in the United States but, at a minimum, that statement can’t hold in the U.S. Perhaps I should go talk to Alistair Black at our lib school, or read some of his histories of the English public library.

    http://www.lis.illinois.edu/oc/people/bio.html?id=alblack

    I’d love it if you could shed some light on that statement and help me learn more history of “the public library.” Otherwise, I’m highly dubious of that statement.

    Thanks! I like the new design, too, if I haven’t said so yet. Is a tad slow loading but I guess that kind of makes sense. πŸ˜‰

  2. Hi Mark, it’s a good question. The statement stems at least partly from my reading of library history in the UK, e.g., Battles’ Unquiet History. I left that title in London ON (currently in Ottawa) so give me till the weekend to look back at it, and I will give you a good answer.

    (Thanks for the feedback on the design. Yeah, it is a bit pokey at times on load because of new functions. It’s not just the Twitter call that’s doing it – it usually loads pretty quickly. Still thinking on how to best address it.)

  3. Aha, from Battles. OK, guess I’m going to have to break down and add it to the reading list. Been aware of it for a long time but with so many other books to read.

    Thanks, John.

  4. Hi Mark, Battles’ book is worth reading. Maybe you saw my review of it. But I looked up the notes I used to write the review of Darnton’s book and he also discusses the transition from royal exclusivity with literature to public libraries.

    He starts Chapter 1 looking back to the “Republic of Letters”, the enlightenment of the eighteenth century and its belief in ideas and knowledge. “Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading” (4). He acknowledges that “the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege”. Nevertheless, he invokes the enlightenment as an argument for openness in libraries. “For Jefferson, enlightenment took place by means of writers and readers, books and libraries — especially libraries”.

    He is not precisely saying that libraries arose as a response to the exclusivity of royals, but that the spirit of public libraries is seen in the enlightenment and to today, despite the counter spirit of exclusivity that existed then and is still observed today in libraries.

    I think I still had Battles’ history echoing in my head when I was reading this. When I get my hands back on his book, I will check if there is more on this theme.

  5. Thanks, John, that makes sense. I was wondering if that was more the sense of royals that he meant; a more plebeian sense if you will.

    And I did see your review, just as I’ve heard many people mention it over the past several years.

  6. Hi Mark,

    I said, β€œThe public library first emerged as a response to the exclusive access of royals to library collections.” I had another look at Battles’ Unquiet History. Here are two items that contribute to the interpretation of that statement.

    Battles notes that the title of the first modern “public” library is often given to the library of San Marco in 1444. “The word ‘public’ refers not to the masses but to the the stage upon which the church, the nobility, and powerful mercantile families performed their roles and wielded their authority” (68). The meaning of the term public had more to do with publicity (although it also served to transmit the benefits of scholars to society).

    In Chapter 4, “The Battle of the Books”, Battles observes that “at the end of the 17th century, the Royal Library was a mishmash of classical works acquired for the edification of monarchs, church literature, and politico-theological tracts” (93). This coincided with a growing abundance of books. When Bentley took charge of the Royal Library, he envisioned a research library for scholarly usage, consistent with the ideal of a universal library, a recurring concept in Battles book.

    My original statement may have implied that the public insisted on access. Not really. Based on the above, the transition from royals to the public was about transmission of power, and a response to the growing availability of books and the need to manage it. It might be argued that some librarians ‘slipped in’ the ideal of a public/universal library. More likely, the abundance of books made public usage not only affordable, but almost necessary as way to justify continued building of collections, and funding them too.

    I had read Battles’ book just before Darnton’s, so it was still echoing in my head, but I think it is consistent with Darnton’s discussion of the spirit of the enlightenment in libraries, mentioned in a previous comment.

    Hope that clarifies the statement. I enjoyed reviewing these passages!

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