Jefferson’s Taper: A National Digital Library

Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis
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 ideal of spreading light may seem archaic today, but it can acquire a twenty-first-century luster if one associates it with the Internet, which transmits messages at virtually no cost. And if Internet enthusiasm sounds suspiciously idealistic, one can extend the chain of associations to a key concept of modern economics—that of a public good. Public goods such as clean air, efficient roads, hygienic sewage disposal, and adequate schooling benefit the entire citizenry, and one citizen’s benefit does not diminish that of another. Public goods are not assets in a zero-sum game, but they do carry costs—up-front costs, usually paid through taxation, at the production end of the services and facilities that the public enjoys as users. The Jeffersonian ideal of access to knowledge as a public good does not mean that knowledge has no cost. We enjoy freedom of information, but information is not free. Someone had to pay for Jefferson’s taper.

I stress that point, because I want to offer a work-in-progress report on the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and to argue that it is a feasible, affordable project as well as an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment ideals on which our country was founded.

Although fantasies about a mega-meta-macro library go back to the ancients, the possibility of actually constructing one is recent. It dates from the creation of the Internet (1974) and the Web (1991). Google demonstrated that the new technology could be harnessed to create a new kind of library, one that, in principle, could contain all the books in existence. But Google Book Search is a story of a good idea gone bad. As first conceived, it promised to do what Google does best: search for pertinent information. Google would digitize millions of books provided for free from research libraries, and users would be able to locate material in them by entering key words and examining short snippets called up from the database.

Google would not make available the full texts of the books, and it might even indicate where they could be found in the nearest library. But because most of the books were covered by copyright, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) brought suit for alleged infringement of their intellectual property. Google could have defended itself by invoking the doctrine of “fair use”—tricky business, to be sure, because it hangs on arguments based on sections 107 and 108 of the 1976 copyright act whose obscurities and ambiguities have occupied lawyers for decades. But…

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