Robert Darnton

American cultural historian and academic librarian recognized as a leading expert on 18th-century France.


  • Gutenberg E - These award winning monographs, coordinated with the American Historical Association, afford emerging scholars new possibilities for online publications, Weaving traditional narrative with digitized primary sources, including maps, photographs, and oral histories.
  • Digital Public Library Of America (DPLA) (Public Library)
    • Among the critiques of the project: its vagueness, lack of internal cohesion, potentially redundant overlap with similar efforts (such as Project Gutenberg), and potential to redirect financial support away from existing public libraries.
    • Apr'2013 launch post. The DPLA expresses an Enlightenment faith in the power of communication... The user-friendly interface will therefore enable any reader—say, a high school student in the Bronx—to consult works that used to be stored on inaccessible shelves or locked up in treasure rooms—say, pamphlets in the Huntington Library of Los Angeles about nullification and secession in the antebellum South... Several of the country’s greatest libraries and museums—among them Harvard, the New York Public Library, and the Smithsonian—are prepared to make a selection of their collections available to the public through the DPLA... Forty states have digital libraries, and the DPLA’s service hubs—seven are already being developed in different parts of the country—will contribute the data those digital libraries have already collected to the national network.

Dec'2011 interview *

  • OpenAccess is far from a fait accompli, I mean most access is closed. In fact, it’s astonishing how restrained and closed academic exchange is. There are severe laws, copyright laws, that prevent me making available to my students all kinds of digital texts which they could use with profit. So, it’s not as if Open Access can declare victory, as if it has transformed academic life or the whole world of knowledge. I think that’s its ambition. Put simply, you could say its ambition is to democratise access to knowledge.
  • I feel that Google Book Search, which was going to commercialise access to a database of books, was a real threat to the communication of knowledge, even though it looks like a great leap forward. And, therefore, we are trying to create what we call the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA): an Open Access digital library that will be available to everyone... in trying to negotiate a settlement to that lawsuit, Google transformed what was originally a search operation into something entirely different: a commercial library.
  • knowledge is a Public Good, and public goods—of course—cost money, nothing is free, but they should be made available free, through whatever devices we can come up with. State action, or in the case of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a coalition of foundations who are providing the money and a coalition of research libraries who are providing the books.
  • I’m an historian, and when I created Gutenberg E, I was President of the American Historical Association. The Association tried to use electronic media as a way to help younger people develop as scholars, develop careers, by making the most of the new technology. However, a lot of the older scholars said ‘Well, these EBook-s aren’t books at all. Books are things that appear with print on paper.’ And part of the struggle was, therefore, legitimation. I forget the exact number of e-books we published, I think it was 17.
  • Cover-to-cover deep reading shouldn’t be exaggerated as something that occurred in the past... They were taking short passages out, copying them into Commonplace Books, and using those passages for various purposes, often rhetorical battles at court by their patrons, or what ever it was. But this was not reading in the way that we like to imagine it. Now, of course, deep reading also did take place. I’m not denying that for a minute. But I’m not sure that we can assume that it was typical.
  • It (DPLA) began a year ago at a conference at Harvard, where we debated it as a general idea. And the general idea is to make available, free of charge, the cultural heritage of our great research libraries. So, in that respect it was like Google Book Search except that it would be non-commercial... We will move into the world of Copy Right, but we won’t break the law... But there are possibilities of making at least some of these copyrighted books available. These, on the whole, will be books that are ‘OutOfPrint’, but not commercially available books, not books currently on the market, but that are still covered by copyright. These works we can make available, I think, but we have to do so by some kind of agreement with the authors and the publishers, and that kind of agreement has yet to be determined. It’s not easy, but it’s something I think we will do little by little over the course of the next decade. So, in ten years, we will have a library greater than the LibraryOfCongress, which is the largest library in the world, available free of charge to everyone.

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