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 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.
The ambition behind this project goes back to the founding of this country. Thomas Jefferson formulated it succinctly: “Knowledge is the common property of mankind.” He was right—in principle. But in practice, most of humanity has been cut off from the accumulated wisdom of the ages. In Jefferson’s day, only a tiny elite had access to the world of learning. Today, thanks to the Internet, we can open up that world to all of our fellow citizens. We have the technical means to make Jefferson’s dream come true, but do we have the will?
I know: the devil can cite Jefferson. Anyone can cull through the papers of the Founding Fathers in order to find quotations in support of a cause. But I can’t resist. Here is Jefferson again:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea…. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
Jefferson was thinking about the effects of printing, of books, and of reading—a favorite subject of the Founding Fathers. Here is Franklin:
The art of printing…diffuses so general a light…that all the window shutters despotism and priestcraft can oppose to keep it out, prove insufficient.
And John Adams:
And you, Messieurs printers, whatever the tyrants of the earth may say of your paper…are so much the more to your honor; for the jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.