Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and ­University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard. His latest book is 
Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature.
 (June 2016)

Mme de Staël and the Mystery of the Public Will

Madame de Staël; portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810
Two hundred years ago, Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker de Staël-Holstein put her finger on a phenomenon that is upsetting the American presidential race today. She called it “public opinion,” but she used that term in a new way to characterize the difficulty faced by a new breed of political leaders: How could …

A Very Different Paris

‘Hurdy-gurdy man and street singer’; photograph by Eugène Atget, Paris, circa 1898–1899
All cities have ruts—paths worn by the routines of their inhabitants as they go about their business. Paris is especially rutted, and the Parisians have an expression for the sense of imprisonment that it imposes on them: “métro, boulot, dodo” (subway, job, sleep). But there is another Paris, the city …

Great New Possibilities for the Library of Congress!

The reading room at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
The prospect of new leadership at the Library of Congress—after the recent resignation of its longtime director—opens up great possibilities for democratizing access to culture. America has led the world in making digital communication part of everyday life, yet it has lagged behind other countries in making the holdings of …

How to Become a Celebrity

‘Marie-Antoinette Hunting with Dogs’; detail of a painting by Louis-Auguste Brun de Versoix, circa 1780–1785
One of the most famous first lines among modern novels—“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953)—has migrated from literature to history and now serves as an article of faith among professional historians. It means: avoid anachronism. The first line in Antoine …

Laughter and Terror

One of the many cartoons published in homage to the cartoonists and journalists assassinated on Wednesday in the office of Charlie Hebdo showed a gravestone with the inscription “Died of Laughter.” No one is laughing these days in Paris. In fact, the massacre raises questions about laughter itself.

The Soul of the Censor

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Reading is an essential aspect of censoring, not only in the act of vetting texts, which often lead to competing exegeses, but also as an aspect of the inner workings of the state. Not only did censors perceive nuances of hidden meaning, but they also understood the way published texts reverberated in the public. Despite its ideological function, the reworking of texts often resembled the editing done by professionals in open societies. To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong.

A World Digital Library Is Coming True!

The first Little Free Library, inviting visitors to ‘take a book, leave a book,’ Hudson, Wisconsin, 2012; photograph by Robert Dawson from his book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, just published by Princeton Architectural Press
In the scramble to gain market share in cyberspace, something is getting lost: the public interest. Libraries and laboratories—crucial nodes of the World Wide Web—are buckling under economic pressure, and the information they diffuse is being diverted away from the public sphere, where it can do most good. Not that information comes free or “wants to be free,” as Internet enthusiasts proclaimed twenty years ago. It comes filtered through expensive technologies and financed by powerful corporations.

The Good Way to Do History

Candida Höfer: BNF Paris XXIII 1998; the reading room at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, designed by Henri Labrouste, 1862–1868
Take the title as a provocation: The Allure of the Archives. What, you may ask, could be less alluring in the digital age than an apology for deciphering words scribbled on paper several centuries ago? Even more provocative, Arlette Farge’s book first appeared in French in 1989, two years before …

The National Digital Public Library Is Launched!

A detail from the preliminary model for the home page of the Digital Public Library of America’s website, to be available at
The Digital Public Library of America is a project to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge. How is that possible? In order to answer that question, I would like to describe the first steps and immediate future of the DPLA. But before going into detail, I think it important to stand back and take a broad view of how such an ambitious undertaking fits into the development of what we commonly call an information society.

Chasing Paper

If the Internet has revolutionized communication as thoroughly as most of us believe, one of its by-products is likely to be nostalgia—a longing for a past when messages came on paper. Texting and e-mailing have cut us off from what once composed the material substratum of communication. Contrary …

In Defense of the New York Public Library

The Rose Main Reading Room at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library; photograph by Anne Day from the new edition of Henry Hope Reed and Francis Morrone’s The New York Public Library: The Architecture and Decoration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It is published by Norton.
Few buildings in America resonate in the collective imagination as powerfully as the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The marble palace behind the stone lions is seen by many as the soul of the city. For a century it provided limitless possibilities of gaining knowledge and satisfying curiosity for immigrants just off the boat, and it still opens access to worlds of culture for anyone who walks in from the street. Tamper with that building and you risk offending some powerful sensitivities.

Jefferson’s Taper: A National Digital Library

The library of the Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic
In a famous letter of 1813, Thomas Jefferson compared the spread of ideas to the way people light one candle from another: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” The eighteenth-century …

The Wolf Man’s Revenge

At left, a broadsheet engraving of a purported Chilean monster that aroused enormous interest in Paris in 1784; at right, the monster re-engraved with the face of Marie-Antoinette during the French Revolution
How can history accommodate the aberrational—not the irrational or the accidental, which often figure in historical studies, but the odd elements that refuse to be assimilated into coherent pictures of the past? Aberrations do not fit into available schemes of things—story lines that lead through familiar channels to anticipated outcomes …

Google’s Loss: The Public’s Gain

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: La Madeleine lisant, circa 1854; from the Oskar Reinhart Collection’s exhibition ‘The Secret Cabinet: A Reader in Context,’ reviewed by Willibald Sauerländer in this issue
It is too early to do a postmortem on Google’s attempt to digitize and sell millions of books, despite the decision by Judge Denny Chin on March 23 to reject the agreement that seemed to make Google’s project possible. Google Book Search may rise from the ashes, reincarnated in some …

Six Reasons Google Books Failed

Judge Denny Chin’s opinion in rejecting the settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who sued it for infringement of their copyrights can be read as both as a map of wrong turns taken in the past and as an invitation to design a better route into the digital future. Extrapolating from the dense, 48-page text that accompanied the judge’s March 23 decision, it is possible to locate six crucial points where things went awry: First, Google abandoned its original plan to digitize books in order to provide online searching. According to that plan, you would have been able to use Google to search the contents of books for a particular word or brief passage, but would not have been able to view or download a lengthy excerpt or an entire book. Thus, Google could have justified its display of snippets of text in the search results by invoking the doctrine of fair use. In this way, it might have won its case against the plaintiffs, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, and at the same time it could have helped revive fair use as a legitimate means of spreading knowledge—for example, in making digitized material available for teaching purposes.


Left: Camille Desmoulins; right: Wael Ghonim

The question has come to haunt every article and broadcast from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region whose people have revolted: what constitutes a revolution? In the 1970s, we used to chase that question in courses on comparative revolutions; and looking back on my ancient lecture notes, I can’t help but imagine a trajectory: England, 1640; France, 1789; Russia, 1917 … and Egypt, 2011?

The Library: Three Jeremiads

People often talk about printed books as if they were extinct. I have been invited to so many conferences on “The Death of the Book” that I suspect it is very much alive. In fact, more printed books are produced each year than the year before. Soon there will be a million new titles published worldwide each year. A research library cannot ignore this production on the grounds that our readers are now “digital natives” living in a new “information age.” If the history of books teaches anything, it is that one medium does not displace another, at least not in the short run.

How Google Can Save America’s Books

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search could be mitigated if Google were willing to contribute some of its data and expertise to the creation of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Google has demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?

Can We Create a National Digital Library?

The following talk was given at the opening of a conference at Harvard on October 1 to discuss the possibility of creating a National Digital Library. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss a question of vital importance to the cultural life of our country: Can we …

A Library Without Walls

Can we create a National Digital Library? That is, a comprehensive library of digitized books that will be easily accessible to the general public. Simple as it sounds, the question is extraordinarily complex. It involves issues that concern the nature of the library to be built, the technological difficulties of designing it, the legal obstacles to getting it off the ground, the financial costs of constructing and maintaining it, and the political problems of mobilizing support for it. Despite the complexities, the fundamental idea of a National Digital Library (or NDL) is, at its core, straightforward. The NDL would make the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens. It would be the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress, but instead of being confined to Capitol Hill, it would exist everywhere, bringing millions of books and other digitized material within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, junior colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any person with access to the Internet.

Blogging, Now and Then

Blogging brings out the hit-and-run element in communication. Bloggers tend to be punchy. They often hit below the belt; and when they land a blow, they dash off to another target. Pow! The idea is to provoke, to score points, to vent opinions, and frequently to gossip.

Google & the Future of Books: An Exchange

To the Editors: In his recent article criticizing the Google settlement [“Google and the New Digital Future,” NYR, December 17, 2009], Robert Darnton fails to acknowledge the significant role that libraries have had in the creation of Google Book Search as well as the concrete steps they are taking to …