The Digital Public Library of America, to be launched on April 18, 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.
Speaking broadly, the DPLA represents the confluence of two currents that have shaped American civilization: utopianism and pragmatism. The utopian tendency marked the Republic at its birth, for the United States was produced by a revolution, and revolutions release utopian energy—that is, the conviction that the way things are is not the way they have to be. When things fall apart, violently and by collective action, they create the possibility of putting them back together in a new manner, according to higher principles.
The American revolutionaries drew their inspiration from the Enlightenment—and from other sources, too, including unorthodox varieties of religious experience and bloody-minded convictions about their birthright as free-born Englishmen. Take these ingredients, mix well, and you get the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights—radical assertions of principle that would never make it through Congress today.
Yet the revolutionaries were practical men who had a job to do. When the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to get it done, they set out to build a more perfect union and began again with a Constitution designed to empower an effective state while at the same time keeping it in check. Checks and balances, the Federalist Papers, sharp elbows in a scramble for wealth and power, never mind about slavery and slave wages. The founders were tough and tough-minded.
How do these two tendencies converge in the Digital Public Library of America? For all its futuristic technology, the DPLA harkens back to the eighteenth century. What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?
Above all, the DPLA expresses an Enlightenment faith in the power of communication. Jefferson and Franklin—the champion of the Library of Congress and the printer turned philosopher-statesman—shared a profound belief that the health of the Republic depended on the free flow of ideas. They knew that the diffusion of ideas depended on the printing press. Yet the technology of printing had hardly changed…
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