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.
 (October 2016)


The New Hillary Library?

Fantasies of the Library

edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turbin
This is the time to think big about designing the digital future. It is a rare moment when a new regime can realign the modes of communication so that they serve the public interest, as the Constitution originally intended.

Mme de Staël and the Mystery of the Public Will

Madame de Staël; portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

by Biancamaria Fontana
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

The Other Paris

by Luc Sante
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 …


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.

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?