Great New Possibilities for the Library of Congress!

Dick Durrance II/National Geographic Creative
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 its greatest library available online and free of charge. A new regime at the Library of Congress (LOC) could digitize its collections and link them with collections in other libraries, archives, and museums so that everyone has access to the resources that are everyone’s heritage.

Until now, digital development has taken place primarily in the private sector. While corporations such as Google were dominating the Internet, the public interest in the digital realm was left to private initiative. The Digital Public Library of America, based in Boston, has begun to link the collections of research libraries in a national network, which now makes ten million items available free of charge to everyone with access to the Internet. The Internet Archive, with headquarters in San Francisco, performs a similar service by harvesting texts from millions of websites as well as books. HathiTrust, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, preserves the texts of 13.4 million volumes, largely from collections that were digitized by Google. (Google’s own database cannot be made available as a commercial digital library, owing to a decision of a federal district court, which declared Google Book Search illegal in 2010.)

Each of these initiatives provides valuable services. Although they overlap in places, they should be maintained—and above all, they should be integrated in a single system so that everyone has access to all of the country’s cultural resources. The Library of Congress is the richest resource of all. As it is supported by public funds, the public should be able to tap its collections—160 million items, of which 37.8 million are books and other print materials—by means of the Internet.

Easier said than done. But other countries have done it, at least on a small scale. National libraries throughout Scandinavia have developed systems to make all of their collections available to all of their citizens, under various restrictions. They favor “extended collective licensing” agreements, backed by legislation, which make it possible for Scandinavians to access copyrighted material without the assent of every owner of a copyright. Associations of authors and publishers agree to the establishment of a fund and a collecting agency, which provides payments to the rights holders according to a formula such as a fixed fee for every viewing of a page. Thanks to an arrangement of this sort worked out between the Norwegian National Library and a collecting society called Kopinor, Norwegians can read online nearly all the books that were ever published in their language.

The National Library of…

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