Darnton discusses future of libraries

Despite a number of obstacles, the Digital Public Library of America, an open-access digital library, is projected to launch in April 2013, making the United States’ cultural heritage available worldwide, according to Robert Darnton, a Harvard University professor and the director of the Harvard University Library. Darnton spoke in Filene Auditorium in Monday’s inaugural Donoho Colloquium titled “The Digital Public Library of America and the Digital Future.”

The DPLA will allow the public to access information without dealing with the costs of accessing it, Darnton said.

Although more knowledge is constantly produced, an increasingly small percentage of it is accessible to the public, he said.

“The cost of academic journals, in general, has increased at four times the cost of inflation since 1980,” he said.

The hyperinflation of periodical prices creates “a dent in a library’s budget,” leading librarians to buy fewer monographs, which are important to the study of the social sciences and humanities, Darnton said.

Meanwhile, journal publishers often report profit margins of 20 to 40 percent, according to Darnton.

“The market is being manipulated and monopolized,” he said. “Private gain has eclipsed the public good.”

The success of Google Books Search demonstrates that new technologies can be harnessed to create a unique kind of library, despite being declared illegal, Darnton said.

“Google chose the path of commercialization when confronted by the issue of infringement of rights,” Darnton said. “We must now take up where Google left off. Nothing like [the DPLA] has ever existed.”

As it develops, the DPLA will struggle with scope and content, costs, legal issues, technical structure and governance, according to Darnton.

Legal issues are “the most important problem of all,” Darnton said. “The DPLA will and must respect copyright.”

To avoid copyright infringements, the DPLA will initially include only materials in the public domain, he said.

“[DPLA] would not threaten interests of publishers and authors who are understandably trying to make a profit on the publishing of books,” he said.

Dan Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science and a computer science professor at Dartmouth, organized the colloquium to “create public awareness in the interesting and sometimes surprising places in which computational ideas appear in the world,” Rockmore said. The colloquium will occur three times each year from now on.

Because DPLA exemplifies the possibilities of computational science, Rockmore said Darnton was the “natural choice” for the first lecture.

David and Miriam Donoho created the Donoho Family Undergraduate Computational Science Colloquia Fund as a senior gift in honor of their son, Daniel Donoho ’06, according to Miriam Donoho.

Daniel Donoho wanted public lectures on interesting topics to be available to students, Miriam Donoho said.

“When we saw that [Darnton] was the first speaker, we just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “DPLA is incredible. It is possible, and it will happen.”

Chuck Sherman ’66, a retiree who lives in the Upper Valley, said he became interested in the possibility of a public digital library when he digitized previous issues of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, he said.

He said the creation of the DPLA is “inevitable,” but greed and lobbyists present hurdles.

“For me, the biggest hindrance is what to do with stuff that isn’t in the public domain,” James Hughes GR ’12 said.

The establishment of a digital library and the future of higher education are closely connected, according to Rockmore.

“The library is a central piece of higher education,” he said. “The ways in which libraries are changing will be a crucial component in how higher education will take advantage of and influence how libraries change.”

This particular colloquium was part of the “Leading Voices in Higher Education” lecture series sponsored by the Dartmouth Strategic Planning Committee. The Neukom Institute for Computational Science and the Friends of the Dartmouth College Library sponsored the colloquium, according to The Neukom Institute website.

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