Robert 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.