ArticlesVolume 36, No. 1 (2012)

Digitize, Democratize: Libraries and the Future of Books

I would like to make a case for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) by contrasting two tendencies that run through the history of books:  democratization and commercialization.  To put it so baldly, however, runs the risk of stranding the argument on some remote, moral high ground, and I want to do the opposite.  By discussing down-to-earth contingencies and pragmatic considerations, I want to follow a path that will lead through difficult terrain toward an elevated goal:  a library that will make our country’s cultural heritage accessible and free of charge, not only to our countrymen and women, but to everyone in the world.

That, I admit, has a utopian ring to it, and I might as well confess at the outset to some sympathy with utopianism.  It challenges the assumption that the way things are is the way they have to be and that the everyday, workaday world is firmly fixed in what we take to be reality.  History shows that things can fall apart, sometimes in a way that releases utopian energy.  Revolutions often produce such an effect, and therefore I will cite some revolutionary changes, even though it raises the danger of confusing history with homily.

Let me begin by invoking the ideal of openness.  It is a happy notion, which calls up felicitous associations:  “open-minded,” “open markets,” “open covenants openly arrived at,” the “Song of the Open Road.”  In the world of libraries, openness has a particularly positive ring, thanks to the movement for Open Access, which promises to open up books and journal article for the benefit of everyone.