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Robert Darnton, director of Harvard University Library, is the driving force behind the Digital Public Library of America which is due to launch next year. He explains his vision, and offers some words of advice for the UK Digital Library.

Since the first steps towards making real the long-discussed notion of a US digital public library were mooted at a meeting at Harvard University in October 2010, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) has leapt out of the stalls. It has attracted worldwide attention, produced an exceptionally lively discussion list and inspired enthusiasm from across the education and library communities. Progress has continued at a pace, from technological beta sprints to intense grassroots activity, ensuring that the DPLA is on course to be launched in April 2013.

He who receives ideas from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.”
Thomas Jefferson

Listening to the initiative’s chief architect at a recent JISC/SCONUL lecture in London, it is not difficult to understand how the project has got off the ground so swiftly and ambitiously. Robert Darnton is an inspiring speaker, passionate about the free access of knowledge to humanity for the good of humanity. He invokes Thomas Jefferson’s observation that the spread of knowledge benefits all without reducing its value, to convey the idea that the public good encompasses access to knowledge as well as access to more conventionally assumed public goods such as clean air and sanitation.

For Darnton, the DPLA is firmly set within the ‘open’ framework he has so strongly advocated while Director of the University Library at Harvard, where he was a key player behind the university’s adoption of an open access mandate.

“Everyone, everywhere will have access to it [the DPLA] through the internet at no cost. The whole idea is to make the public heritage available to the public and so it is fundamentally a non-commercial enterprise. Yet there will be a spirit of enterprise behind it because, of course, it must be carefully designed. There must be a sound business plan to cover costs. We are working hard to be realistic and pragmatic but the basic principle is to make all knowledge available, free of charge to everyone. So the DPLA is definitely aligned with the open access movement,” he says.

In the US, the business plan for sustainability involves securing partnerships with private foundations which will provide the financial support necessary for the infrastructure and further digitisation, and coalitions of libraries to provide the books and other resources. At the end of last year the DPLA also announced a collaboration with Europeana, to ensure that “users everywhere will eventually have access to the combined riches of the two systems at a single click”.

The UK Digital Library

The UK Digital Library is a vision JISC is currently working towards. Collaboration and partnerships will be key with such organisations as the BBC, the British Library and SCONUL to make it reality. A UKDL will make publicly funded resources, from archives to scholarly research, accessible to all. JISC’s vision is of a borderless library that is fully integrated into research and learning, and that underpins the creation and use of knowledge.

Access to knowledge is a public good but it is not costless. These costs have been rising unsustainably due to the greed and monopolistic practices of publishers. It’s time for a new kind of library. We have it in our power to create a digital library that will make our wealth of cultural heritage available free of charge to the US and the world.”
Robert Darnton

This requires the systems to be interoperable and, while content is the first challenge that springs to mind when considering developing a digital public library, the infrastructure underpinning it is crucial to its success.

According to Darnton, “We must design the DPLA in such a way that separate collections scattered all over the country will be made available at one click of a computer or a handheld device of some sort. That means interoperability is absolutely essential and so is the openness of metadata. So, from the users point of view, it will be as if you are sitting in your living room or anywhere and with one click you can get the information you want no matter where it may be located.”

As the UK takes its first steps along the road towards a UK Digital Library (see box-out), infrastructure is high on the agenda for JISC – a digital library holds the promise of a more effective, cost-efficient infrastructure to use as the platform for shared services, for example by joining up the metadata that underpins library collections. But what can we learn from the US experience?

“I hesitate to give advice to anyone,” remarks Darnton, with characteristic modesty. “I hope to learn from what is going on in the UK. If I understand correctly, things are beginning here at the level of higher education and you’ve made great strides in that respect.

Professor Robert Darnton Lecture + Q&A





“The main difficulty that I notice, just from the other side of the ocean, is the danger of commercialisation. There is always a temptation to make some kind of deal with a commercial interest that is pursuing its own advantage, so I think it is crucial to maintain open access as a fundamental commitment and then, if you develop partnerships in the private sector, to do so in a way that will not damage the public interest and won’t fence off any cultural assets from the cultural commons that really belong to everyone.”

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