Robert Darnton is always worth reading, and he does not disappoint in his “Google and the Future of Books,” The New York Review of Books 56, no. 2 (February 12, 2009):9-11. Darnton, being the historian of the eighteenth-century that he is, starts his analysis of the Google digitization copyright deal with the promises of that earlier era’s Republic of Letters, where people could become citizens by engaging in reading and writing. It is not a perfect comparison, as he himself admits: “Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operated, was a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged. Yet I want to invoke the Enlightenment in an argument for openness in general and for open access in particular” (p. 9).
Initially, Darnton tackles some of the more inane features of recent copyright legislation, where “When it comes to digitization, access to our cultural heritage generally ends on January 1, 1923, the date from which great numbers of books are subject to copyright laws. It will remain there—unless private interests take over the digitizing, package it for consumers, tie the packages up by means of legal deals, and sell them for the profit of the shareholders. As things stand now, for example, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, published in 1922, is in the public domain, whereas Lewis's Elmer Gantry, published in 1927, will not enter the public domain until 2022” (p. 9). Yep, that doesn’t make much sense to me either. So, maybe this Google thing is fine after all.
Darnton provides some history of libraries and scholarly publishing, and disciplines as well, to note how complex the world has gotten and how different it is from just a couple of centuries. Darnton believes that the library is still at the center of the university (and the universe), but that it exists now because of its ability to utilize cyberspace via its networks. And he believes that some of the old disciplinary and other barriers to learning have collapsed, where the Republic of Letters can now support both professional scholars and a host of amateurs: “The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips. We can make the Enlightenment ideal come to life in reality” (p. 10). Now we are breathless.
Hold on. Darnton reminds us that there is a “fundamental contradiction” in this Googlization of the world’s libraries: “Yet if we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction. To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere” (p. 10). This does not deter Darnton from grasping the more positive benefits from the digitization of all this stuff, although he states that in order to digitize we must also democratize: “We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning” (p. 10).
What worries Darnton is that we are allowing the lawsuit against Google to settle an important issue of public policy, noting that it is already too late to do much more than worry about the future, contending that the “settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything” (p. 11). He is worried, and we all should be worried as well. Darnton believes that “if we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever” (p. 11). Too bad, I liked the dream.