The DPLA and the quest for a universal library

Ever since the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground two thousand years ago, people have yearned to rebuild it. Today, thanks to the internet, the dream of a universal library seems closer to fulfillment than ever before. But as Google’s ill-fated Book Search project has revealed, the challenges to creating a comprehensive online library remain great – and they have little to do with technology.

In the new issue of Technology Review, I report on the latest and perhaps most ambitious effort to create “the library of utopia”: the Digital Public Library of America, or DPLA. Led by Harvard luminaries, the DPLA has big plans, big names, and big contributors, but it, too, faces big obstacles, not least of which is its hesitancy to define what it wants to be.

Here’s a bit from the article:

If you were looking for Larry Page’s opposite, you would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Robert ¬≠Darnton. A distinguished historian and prize-winning author, a former Rhodes scholar and MacArthur fellow, a Chevalier in France’s L√©gion d’Honneur, and a 2011 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the 72-year-old Darnton is everything that Page is not: eloquent, diplomatic, and embedded in the literary establishment. If Page is a bull in a china shop, Darnton is the china shop’s proprietor.

But Darnton has one thing in common with Page: an ardent desire to see a universal library established online, a library that would, as he puts it, “make all knowledge available to all citizens.” …

Read it all.

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3 Responses to The DPLA and the quest for a universal library

  1. Chris Nahr

    It seems there is really only one obstacle to a universal library, and that’s copyright — in particular, the absurd extension of copyright to 70 years after an author’s death. That’s why publishers can refuse to let Google scan their works, and also why Google might erect a monopoly based on bilateral settlements, as Darnton fears.

    Not coincidentally, there was no copyright law when the Library of Alexandria flourished…

  2. Bobcorrick

    @Chris Nahr: “no copyright law” unless you count the ruler’s right to copy (“In addition to buying books, the Ptolemies acquired books through plunder. It is widely reported that upon entering the Alexandrian harbor, ships were inspected, and any books they were carrying were seized. A copy was made and given to the original owner, but the original was kept for the Great Library.”)

  3. admin

    Russians have one. It was a family and community effort, resulted in lib.rus.ec in Equador. It includes almost everything published in Russian since 1980 (just an observation), and a vast amount of technical literature. They also have nehudlit.ru for technical literature, which is also a community effort.

    But the most popular one is flibusta.net, which is pretty much a piratebay for books printed in Russian.

    Information has a bias to be free, and Russians made it free at least for themselves.