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Digital Archives Symposium: Keynote Robert Darnton, "The Research Library Today: Three Jeremiads in Search of a Happy Ending"

After reading a critical review of Darnton's work in this morning's Chronicle, I was eager to hear about his vision for a collective eLibrary system.  The author's accusation of elitism is wildly misplaced, I quickly saw--you could not imagine someone more committed to democratizing knowledge, cultural diversity and inclusion, and open-access resources.  Darnton is one of those amazing people who is both brilliant and optimistic, who is leading powerful change and never forgetting the powerless.  He is not only a visionary for a future Digital National Library, but he is also a role model for scholars committed to civic service and engagement.

Jeremiads, in Darnton's words, are cultural events that tell us to put on our seatbelts, we're going to hell.  He describes the current crisis of libraries as comparable to other crises we face today, including economic crashes and natural disasters, in that many people believe that digitization threatens to make libraries obsolete. 

Darnton (Director, Harvard University Library) begins by sharing a memorable undergraduate experience of reading Melville's heavily annotated copy of Emerson's essays in the Rare Books section of the Houghton Library.  This experience with primary texts of this kind used to be only possible in a great book collectionbut he is committed to making this experience available to everyone. 

Digitization is not the death of libraries, Darnton suggests, but instead a metamorphosing rebirth.  2.3 million items have already been digitized at Harvard.  This large-scale, transformative project illustrates, he says, that the analog and digital are mutually reinforcing for the future of books.  Creating opposition between print and digitization is a fatal mistake. 

Darnton identifies three problems facing academia and its libraries, three prophecies of doom for our future:


First, he describes a vicious circle in which the escalation in the price of periodicals has forced libraries to purchase less books.  Because of this price increase, fewer publishers are producing monographs.  Therefore, the publish or perish expectation is making academic success increasingly difficult. 

As evidence, Darnton cites some astounding statistics.  In 1974, it cost a library an average of $54.86 for a one-year subscription to an academic journal; in 2009, it cost $2,031.00, and $4,753.00 for international titles--more than ten times the rate of inflation.  (Journals in science and medicine, he mentioned later, can run as high as $30-40,000). 

As a result of this escalating cost, academic libraries have had to radically adjust their acquisitions budgets.  Libraries used to spend half their budget on monographs and half on series; but now, libraries can spend almost their entire budget on periodicals.  Even if a hopeful graduate student or junior faculty secures a publishing contract, a monograph published by a University Press can barely expect to sell 200 or 300 copies.  One consequence is that there are fewer outlets for scholarship, particularly the kind that we require for hiring and promotion. 

Darnton introduced an idea to alleviate this problem, an idea that he tested and found insufficient.  Several years ago, Darnton proposed granting awards to outstanding dissertation projects in subject areas that are particularly difficult to find publishers (ie Latin American postcolonial studies).  Funded by a Mellon grant, the Guttenberg e-book (under Darnton's care) published these projects digitally, along with multimedia components.  Sustainability, however, presented a problem for the project: despite the modest cost to subscribe to these online books, it simply didn't catch on.  These texts are now available for free online.


The issue of sustainability offered a transition to Darnton's second Jeremiad.  Despite these escalating problems with inflation of costs and a decline in production for academic publishing, faculty understanding of these economic challenges has remained largely unchanged.  As a result, university libraries are in a bind, as prices continue to rise and subscriptions are increasingly sold in bundles.  As prices spiral upwards, the professors who write and review these articles for free then buy back the product of our own labor at ruinous prices.  But of course, we don't pay for it--our libraries do.  This defunct system, he warns, is undercutting the production of knowledge. 

Open access journals have been on the rise as a potential solution to these prohibitive costs, including the development of projects like the Public Library of Science.  Open access publishing will hopefully, gradually, change the terrain.  Darnton makes a call for scholars, and humanists especially, to make more concerted efforts to publish our work in open access journals. 

At Harvard, a number of professors have bound themselves, in writing, to publish all of their future scholarly articles in open access journals.  This commitment, which Darnton calls legislation, included an escape clause for an automatic waiver.  However, this policy, he says, has worked: Harvard now has 3,560 articles in its repository, including representation from three-fourths of faculty in humanities and social sciences. 

If the monopolistic practices of publishers are to be broken, we need open accessbut we also need these digital venues to be sustainable.  How will open access journals work in the humanities, where we lack funding to fund digital publishing?  How can we cover costs at the production rather than consumption end?  Open access publishing cuts much of the cost, particularly the large piece of the pie taken by publishers, but it still costs some money. 

Compact for Open-Access Publishing is a coalition of universities that encourages open access publishing.  Darnton says that there is potential for libraries to save billions of dollars, but this is a long-run solution, not an immediate fix.  Espresso book machines, which publish on demand, demonstrate ways that digital technology that is reinforcing the codex, but it too lacks potential for comprehensive change. 


Darnton's third crisis is the way Google, and other relevance-ranking search engines, control access to information.  Google Book Search, he says, is becoming the largest library in the world.  Its primary goal is capitalistic, while libraries exist to get books, knowledge and information to readers for free.  It seems an insurmountable difference.  However, Darnton suggests optimistically that the fundamental incompatibility of purpose might be mitigated if Google could offer libraries access to its digital database on reasonable terms. 

Darnton provided some legal background for this issue, explaining that the authors' and publishers' complaints of copyright infringement, addressed in Google's Settlement, has created an agreement to divide the pie.  37% of the profits go to Google, and 63% go to authors/publishers who own the copyright.  Readers, however, are significantly excluded from this partnership. 

Darnton points out similarities between Google and the academic publishing industry.  Again, we have a subscription device that will ask libraries to subscribe to an institutional database in order to have access to a library.  Will Google's prices spiral the same way that prices have spiraled for scholarly journals?  Darnton suspects that this price escalation within Google Books is inevitable.

Law of marketplace will prevail, some say: if the costs are too high, libraries will stop paying.  However, cocaine pricing (starting the price low, letting the faculty and students get hooked, and then ratcheting up the price) traps libraries in expensive subscriptions.  As the cost estimates above show, libraries are in effect forced to pay prices that are unarguably exploitative, because demand is simply not elastic. 

Darnton asserts that Google is a monopoly, a monopoly of a new kind: perhaps the largest monopoly of all time, here of information.  Because Google Book Search is a monopoly, it can (and inevitably will) charge monopoly prices.  Trust uswe are differentremember our mantra to do no evil Google promises.  But Darnton asks, what about five years from now?  Ten years from now? 

Google's Settlement has been charged with threatening the free exchange of information.  It puts a large collection of the world's literary heritage in the hands of a single corporate institution.  This settlement, Darnton reminds us, is still in deliberation.  How will this court decision shape the future of the digital landscape of books?  This is an important moment in which the rules of the game are going to be determined, by litigation rather than legislation.  And on these arcane points lies the future of digitization. 

Darnton asks two important questions: Do we want to commercialize knowledge?  What if we instead had a national digital library?


Darnton describes his national digital library in visionary, democratic terms.  Virtually all books in our research libraries would be available online to everyone.  To call this nave or utopian, he says, is to ignore how much work has already taken place.  By creating an electronic database that is committed to the public good rather than capitalist gain, we can ensure that digitization will serve the wellbeing of readers. 

Darnton points out that national digital libraries are being constructed right now in the Netherlands, Japan, Norway, Australia, Finland, and elsewhere.  How can we learn from their experience?  If these countries can create national digital libraries, why not the US? 

Of course, working in English, we have more works, which means more costs: digitizing a single page costs somewhere between 10 cents to 10 dollars per page.  But, it is possible to digitize this work and spread the cost out over a decade or more: Darnton says that the greatest costs is legal, not financial. 

Congress would need to pass legislation to protect the library from lawsuits, and the authors would need to be compensated.  However, it can be done.  An extended collective licensing regime might be a potential legal solution to the problem.  Perhaps even Google itself could be enlisted in the cause.  They have 2 million books now; why couldn't Google give these files to this national digital library? 

A coalition of foundations could finance the project with or without Google, working with research libraries to scan, curate, and preserve these books for future generations.  The potential unraveling of the Google Settlement provides us with an opportunity to provide everyone with access to a commonwealth of culture.  This library wouldn't solve all these problems--instead, it would open the way for a general transformation from business plans to public good within the digitization of books.  It's an appeal, he concludes, to change the system.




Q: Do you see shifting uses of digital media, in scholarly research and in social media?  Is the changing landscape of media usage/practice conducive of getting people to work collaboratively?

A: Darnton says that the way digital texts are used (images, sounds, the works) will reinforce this general direction to a commonwealth of knowledge and open access in general but it's easy to say this.  Our students are born digital, digital natives, and the rate of change suggests that the habits of people, including reading habits, are changing and will reinforce public demand to have the public good represented. 

Foundations, not Congress or private businesses, will fund a national digital library.  The library will need to be sustainable, but it can be built accumulatively, and we can make it happen with the right plan.  He mentions plans for a conference next fall that would include the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress to talk about actually launching this thing.  He says excitedly, We have an opportunity here for digitization to create a democratization of knowledge and not a commercialization of knowledge.


Q: Academic institutions, schools, and local libraries will clearly be on board but are you convinced that Congress will support these projects, when corporate interests have such a stronghold in Washington? 

A: Darnton says the enthusiasm and possibility are there, but lobbies are important (particularly concerning copyright).  Most books produced in the 20th century are still protected by copyright.  Fourteen years renewable once, the original plan for copyright in early America, created limited copyright for the sake of the public good.  The production of knowledge, he says, depends on both having copyright, and limiting it. 


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