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Harvard University Library

Report of Robert Darnton

Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library


What direction should we set for the Harvard Libraries now that we are deep into the 21st century and a new age of information? The technology changes so rapidly that the landscape keeps shifting. To imagine a roadmap into the future would be folly. But it should be possible to keep our bearings if, like a cautious driver, we glance into the rearview mirror while watching the bends ahead. For my part, I think it important to look backward as well as forward, and I would distinguish two views, one fixed on the venerable codex, the other on the Internet.

When I walked up the steps of Widener for the first time during my freshman year, way back in the 20th century, I felt overwhelmed with awe. The grand flight of stairs, the Corinthian columns, the studious silence in the monumental reading room—everything about the library made it seem like a temple of learning located, appropriately, in the center of Harvard Yard. Here, I thought, is all the learning in the world contained within one building. It comes packaged between hard covers, laid out on shelves, and findable from a card catalog.

That, of course, was a grand illusion. Freshmen no longer share it today. For them, all knowledge exists online. Many of them never enter Widener. They call up books on their computers; and if they wander into a library, it often is Lamont, in order to escape from their roommates and cram before exams.

Today’s freshmen harbor a different grand illusion. They imagine shortcuts to learning, something comparable to one-stop shopping. Although they may distinguish between  information and knowledge, they often think that knowledge comes in clicks. They rarely understand when they first arrive in Harvard Yard that for the most part knowledge must be extracted from books, books located in libraries.

Grand illusions contain grains of truth. The vision of the library as a temple of knowledge and of the Internet as the source of everything knowable are both true in their own way, and they are not incompatible. The enthusiasm for mining data from digitized texts may seem to be at odds with the love of books, but most of the data came from the books in the first place. In fact, books are more important than ever, and they also are being published in greater numbers. Whether or not they are reduced to electronic impulses, it is their content that counts. We have accumulated content in Harvard’s libraries, generation after generation, since 1638. The investment of time, money, and intelligence has created the greatest university library in the world. To maintain its greatness, we must advance on two fronts.

On the digital frontier, we must build new systems, buy the data sets, install the software, digitize the texts, and preserve them for the future. At the same time, we must not falter in sustaining our traditional collections. We must continue to acquire monographs on everything of importance across the entire spectrum of learning.

Lesser libraries may rely on Google, JSTOR, and whatever they can harvest from the Internet, but Harvard has a responsibility to keep up with the production of scholarship by increasing its acquisitions of books—old-fashioned books, printed on paper and constructed on the model of the codex, which was invented in the third century BCE. Our responsibility extends to future generations, both at Harvard and throughout the world of learning. No other university library has contracted such a heavy obligation, because none can compare with Harvard in the depth and breadth of its collections. Somehow we must find a way to stock our shelves with books and to build a digital infrastructure for the 21st century. We owe it to ourselves, to our successors, and to our fellow citizens everywhere in the republic of learning.