Friday, January 23, 2009

The Republic of Digits

Robert Darnton responds to the Google Library Project settlement in “Google & the Future of Books,” available from:

Darnton invokes the Enlightenment in an argument for open access:

Our republic was founded on faith in the central principle of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters: the diffusion of light. For Jefferson, enlightenment took place by means of writers and readers, books and libraries—especially libraries, at Monticello, the University of Virginia, and the Library of Congress. This faith is embodied in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, establishes copyright and patents "for limited times" only and subject to the higher purpose of promoting "the progress of science and useful arts." The Founding Fathers acknowledged authors' rights to a fair return on their intellectual labor, but they put public welfare before private profit. …

To descend from the high principles of the Founding Fathers to the practices of the cultural industries today is to leave the realm of Enlightenment for the hurly-burly of corporate capitalism. … we live in a world designed by Mickey Mouse, red in tooth and claw. …

When businesses like Google look at libraries, they do not merely see temples of learning. They see potential assets or what they call "content," ready to be mined. Built up over centuries at an enormous expenditure of money and labor, library collections can be digitized en masse at relatively little cost—millions of dollars, certainly, but little compared to the investment that went into them. …

the settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. … Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.

An ARL/ALA “Guide for the Perplexed” about this settlement is available from:

Update: Darnton on NPR.