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veritasHarvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1338 May 2007
Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

Harvard University Library Notes / July 2007 / No. 1338

Interview: Robert Darnton

Since his May 22 appointment, many questions have come to Robert Darnton in his new role as Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library. In this interview, Professor Darnton answers a selection of them for readers of Library Notes.


As an historian, you have spent a lot of time studying books in the distant past, but you also have been involved in some futuristic, electronic projects. What are your views on the Internet?


I am not an expert, but I am an enthusiast. I think the web is the greatest thing since Gutenberg.

If you take the long view, you could say there have been four fundamental changes in the history of communication since humans learned to speak: writing, from about 4000 BCE; the codex (that is, a book that could be read by turning pages), from about 100 CE; movable type (invented in China and Korea nearly a thousand years ago but developed for the production of printed works in the West by Gutenberg in the 1450s), and the Internet, a term that came into use only in 1974.

Today, we have search engines, blogs, relevance rating, and many other innovations. We live in one of the most promising and exciting eras in history. But people in the midst of a transformation in technology cannot make sense of it all, cannot reorient themselves easily in the new mental landscape, and cannot see far into the future.

One thing we do know: the technology is changing so fast that more changes are sure to occur. Another Google is just around the corner, but what will it be? The Internet is bigger than television, radio, the telephone, the penny press, the postage stamp. It belongs to the democratization of knowledge.


Aren't there dangers?


Of course; there is a lot of garbage out there in the ether. Students often read what appears on their computer screens without questioning its validity. Wikipedia can get things wrong. Blogs can mislead the public. But both can be corrected, and they open access to information on a worldwide scale. They break apart monopolies of knowledge. Jefferson would have loved it.


What is Harvard's place in this process?


Harvard cannot open its stacks to the whole world and turn itself into a public library. It has a duty to its students and faculty—and also to future generations. So it must continue to build its print collections and to preserve them. It must lead the way in the effort to preserve digital sources, too. But thanks to digitization, it can make its riches available to the rest of the world.

The Open Collections Program is an example of how it can perform this role. Harvard now provides free access through the Internet to its enormous holdings of books, manuscripts, and images concerning subjects such as women in the workplace, immigration, epidemics and public health.

In this respect—in fact, in all respects—I would like to follow the lead of my predecessor, Sidney Verba, who did so much not only to strengthen the University Library but also to promote the public's access to its treasures.


How does Google figure in this picture?


Google is an enormously complex subject. I have followed Google Book Search from my perspective as a trustee of the New York Public Library. It is so fraught with complications, conflicting interests, even lawsuits that we tend to forget a fundamental fact: it is a great opportunity for bringing books, the whole world of books, within the reach of everyone—for free.

So I see Google essentially as an opportunity, but I would not minimize the complexities and contradictions involved in sorting out issues of copyright, fair use, authors' royalties, publishers' bottom lines, students' access to course materials, and the public's right to information.


Can Google provide a solution to some of the library's problems?


Despite my enthusiasm for Google, I don't think we should be naïve. Google is no quick fix. It is bound to make mistakes. It won't be able to digitize everything, not even everything in the public domain. In responding to the challenge of Google, we have learned that the world of books is larger than we had imagined.

When I was a student at Harvard, I looked up at the imposing bulk of Widener and imagined it contained all the knowledge in the world. Not so. If you superimposed the holdings of the Harvard University Library on those of the New York Public Library—and they are by far the two largest libraries in the country aside from the Library of Congress—you would not come close to covering all the books that exist in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world.

There is little redundancy in the holdings of those two libraries plus the three others that first signed on to the Google project—the libraries of Stanford, Michigan, and the University of California. Sixty percent of the combined stock of books in those five libraries exist in only one of them, and there are untold numbers of books in libraries that are not participating in Google Book Search.

If I remember correctly, the total holdings of research libraries in the United States comes to about 500 million items. More than a million new titles are published every four years, and the output of old-fashioned printed books keeps increasing, despite the enthusiasm for everything electronic. Nearly 300,000 new titles were produced in 2006. Google originally announced that it intended to digitize 15 million books in all. How will it keep up with current production while at the same time digitizing all the books accumulated over the centuries? We don't know what arrangements Google might make with publishers and authors owning books in copyright. But Google is not digitizing special collections, pictorial material, and archives. The leaders of Google think big. From their perch in Mountain View, California, they have an Olympian view of the world of print. But much as I admire them, I do not think they will come close to including all the sources that scholars need to consult.


Aside from Google, what are your views of digitization and preservation?


I belong to the generation of historians who tried to see history "from below"—that is, to understand it as a process that touched the lives of everyone, not just the elite. But most people in the past died without leaving a trace of their existence. The documents that have survived in libraries and archives represent only a tiny proportion of lived experience—and those documents are in danger of disappearing. When you turn a page of a 19th-century book, the paper often crumbles in your fingers. It is a horrible feeling.

Other media are more endangered. We have lost 80 percent of all silent films, 50 percent of all films made before World War II. And what will we do about books that are born digitized? A digital document cannot be preserved nearly as well as ink embedded in paper, because hardware and software quickly become obsolete.

Digital preservation, as I understand it, must solve two fundamental problems: how to cope with the potential degradation of bits and how to make the bits continuously accessible despite the obsolescence of the medium in which they are encoded.

Harvard is leading the way in the attack on both problems. Its Digital Repository Service, begun in 2000, is at the forefront of technological efforts to preserve digital material. In fact, having begun to learn my way around the University Library, I am amazed at the work in progress on digitization at Harvard. The Library Digital Initiative is integrating web-based communities, web sites, databases, and course syllabuses seamlessly into HOLLIS. And the Digital Acquisitions Program purchases digital resources at a rate of $2 million a year.


Does all this technological modernity ever make you yearn for a good, old-fashioned book?


I love books, especially old books. I've spent most of my scholarly life studying them, not only as vehicles of ideas but also as products of artisanal culture and as objects. I like their feel, their smell, the texture of their paper, the way they fit in your hands. A German scholar, Erich Schön, has emphasized the "Sinnlichkeit" or sensuality of reading in the past, and I think he has a point.

When I pick up an 18th-century book, I often hold a leaf up to the light and look for the irregularities produced by the artisans who made it—little circles left by drops that escaped from the fingers of the vatman or bits of petticoats that resisted being ground into the pulp.

I once found the fingerprint of a printer embedded into the binding of an 18th-century edition of Diderot's Encyclopédie, and I even identified him by tracing him through the wage book of the foreman in the printing shop. I don't want to sound romantic, but books embody the skill of book people as well as the ideas of writers.

Libraries, as I see them, are not warehouses of books. They are dynamic centers for communicating knowledge. They stand at the center of the campus at most universities, and rightly so. A library functions as the heart of a university, as a living, organic presence, pulsating with energy. The beat has quickened in the era of the Internet, but Harvard creates time and room for students to enjoy old books in quiet corners like Houghton, reading slowly and letting their imagination wander. Old books and e-books are not enemies. They are allies, and we need to find a way to make both of them flourish at Harvard.


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