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The Library: Three Jeremiads

The greatest obstacle is legal, not financial. Presumably, the DPLA would exclude books currently being marketed, but it would include millions of books that are out of print yet covered by copyright, especially those published between 1923 and 1964, a period when copyright coverage is most obscure, owing to the proliferation of “orphans”—books whose copyright holders have not been located. Congress would have to pass legislation to protect the DPLA from litigation concerning copyrighted, out-of-print books. The rights holders of those books would have to be compensated, yet many of them, especially among academic authors, might be willing to forgo compensation in order to give their books new life and greater diffusion in digitized form. Several authors protested against the commercial character of Google Book Search and expressed their readiness to make their work available free of charge in memoranda filed with the New York District Court.

Perhaps even Google itself could be enlisted in the cause. It has digitized about two million books in the public domain. It could turn them over to the DPLA as the foundation of a collection that would grow to include more recent books—at first those from the problematic period of 1923–1964, then those made available by their rights holders. Google would lose nothing by this generosity; each digitized book that it made available could, if other donors agree, be identified as a contribution from Google; and it might win admiration for its public-spiritedness.

Even if Google refused to cooperate, a coalition of foundations could provide enough to finance the DPLA, and a coalition of research libraries could provide the books. By working systematically through their holdings, a great collection could be formed. It would conform to the highest standards in its bibliographical apparatus, its scanning, its editorial decisions, and its commitment to preservation for the use of future generations.

Should the Google Book Search agreement not be upheld by the court, its unraveling would come at an extraordinary moment in the development of an information society. We have now reached a period of fluidity, uncertainty, and opportunity. Things have come undone, and they can be put together in new ways, subordinating private profit to the public good and providing everyone with access to a commonwealth of culture.

Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices, the economics of scholarly publishing, the unbalanced budgets of libraries, and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. Instead, it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It’s an appeal to change the system.

—November 23, 2010

Letters

How to Use the Internet February 24, 2011

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