The Chronicle of Higher Education has an exciting article on a proposal for a National Digital Library. There are a cluster of related articles, but you may not be able to read them without a Chronicle password. Fortunately, Robert Darnton of Harvard, who is spearheading the proposal, has put a lengthy essay about his arguments, in a more accessible place, at the New York Review of Books. In the essay, A Library Without Walls, he sets forth his utopian vision for a national digital library. I am not sure quite how this either builds upon or competes with either Hathi Trust Digital Library, which already exists, or the Google Book Project, and Google Scholar. Darnton's essay is lovely to read, full of stirring language, referring to Enlightenment ideals and actual projects in a number of other countries to digitize their national libraries.
At Harvard, we have conducted a preliminary survey of the projects underway in other nations. We have even located an incipient NDL in Mongolia. The Dutch are now digitizing every Dutch book, pamphlet, and newspaper produced from 1470 to the present. President Sarkozy of France announced last November that he would make €750 million available to digitize the nation’s cultural “patrimony.” And the Japanese Diet voted for a two-year, 12.6 billion yen crash program to digitize their entire national library. If the Netherlands, France, and Japan can do it, why can’t the United States?Quite stirring and very exciting, but I am a bit confused about how his project relates to the afore-mentioned existing projects. If it manages to pull them together into something that will definitely become and remain open to the public, that would, indeed, be something worth cheering about.
I propose that we dismiss the notion that a National Digital Library of America is far-fetched, and that we concentrate on the general goal of providing the American people with the kind of library they deserve, the kind that meets the needs of the twenty-first century. We can equip the smallest junior college in Alabama and the remotest high school in North Dakota with the greatest library the world has ever known. We can open that library to the rest of the world, exercising a kind of “soft power” that will increase respect for the United States worldwide. By creating a National Digital Library, we can make our fellow citizens active members of an international Republic of Letters, and we can strengthen the bonds of citizenship at home.