There’s been much said about the restructuring of the Harvard University Library system recently. Most campus debate and media coverage has focused on the administration’s plans to reduce the size of the library workforce. Of course, the university has a responsibility to reach a sustainable solution with its workers. However, we should not let these negotiations overshadow the benefits and possibilities of a modernized library system.
With this transition process, Harvard has the opportunity to serve as an example of what a 21st century library should be. Indeed, this process could uniquely position Harvard to contribute to a much greater project: the creation of America’s first digital public library.
Our Library Today
Administrators have asserted that restructuring is a necessary for the library to keep pace with demand for essential new technologies, and that increased centralization is needed to make important strategic decisions. President Faust, in a February community message, also stressed the need for increased efficiency. ”Only 29 percent of Harvard’s total library budget goes to materials,” she wrote. “For our peers, the average is 41 percent.”
This underlying message is that administrators want to reduce the size of the staff. The community has seen repeated protests by university library workers, organized to prevent mass layoffs. One clerical worker in Harvard’s library system, angered at these recent events, asked the question, “Who decides? Who made the decision that library staff should be cut and why? Where did the directive come from? What are the guiding principles for such decisions?”
It is often difficult to discern what motives drive the decisions of administrators. The full extent of the Allston expansion project, for example, remains a mystery to me. But in the case of the library, we have privileged access to the thought process of a key decision-maker and his opinions on the future of information in the 21st century. After all, he wrote it all out for us.
The Digital Revolution
Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library, first joined the faculty as a professor of history. His chief academic interest was in an emerging field called the “history of the book.” His academic work examined the ways in which print works aided the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas and sparked the seeds of the French Revolution.
Darnton’s thinking on the new information landscape is summarized in The Case for Books, a collection of essays. He views libraries as essential research tools, links to our collective past. Without them, Darnton believes, history is abandoned and future learning endeavors become bleak. However, he is also an optimist on digital technology’s potential as a conduit for intellectual work:
In many societies, despite enormous inequalities, ordinary people not only read but have access to a huge quantity of reading matter through the Internet. I would not minimize the digital divide, which separates the computerized world from the rest, nor would I underestimate the importance of traditional books. But the future is digital. And I believe that if we can resolve the current challenges facing books in ways that favor ordinary citizens, we can create a digital republic of letters. Much of my book is devoted to this premise and can be summarized in two words: digitize and democratize.
Darnton knows the power of information. His vision for intellectual exchange is the ideal of the “republic of letters,” and he hopes that an increase in access to information will inspire a new era of academic creativity.
Digitization is a double-edged sword. Even Bill Gates admits that ”reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off of paper.” However, Darnton makes a powerful case that technology can deepen the quality of intellectual discourse. If these are the guiding impulses of Harvard’s library transition, and not merely an acquisitive drive for “efficiency,” we are likely to witness significant innovation. Indeed, the image of the ideal 21st century library may emerge over the next decade at Harvard.
The Google Problem
Harvard can apply significant leverage on the way information is used in our country and has even done so quite recently. The lawsuit against Google Books, motivated by a justified fear of the monetization of the library, is a prime example.
Harvard University, along with Stanford and Oxford, was one of the original partners in Google’s mass digitization project. The hope in 2004 was that Google would be able to provide open access to millions of documents for students and researchers. However, after relations with the Association of American Publishers turned sour, the project morphed into something quite different; an attempt to create the largest book business ever imagined.
By 2008, a large-scale battle had developed in the courts. Groups representing writers and publishers reached a settlement with Google, whereby Google would charge a subscription fee for the service and share revenues with publishers. The open information project had been commercialized.
As these legal issues unfolded, Harvard turned from Google’s partner to its vocal critic. Professors and officials claimed that the settlement contained “too many potential limitations” to be of use for the academic community, and questioned the Google’s monopoly power. Other universities soon followed in dropping the partnership; the proposed settlement ultimately collapsed in a 2011 court case.
Professor Darnton wrote in the New York Times that Google’s failure to reach a settlement was a “victory for the public good,” as it prevented one company from monopolizing the digitization of books. However, Google’s original dream of making all the world’s books available online was a noble one, and should not be abandoned. A public project of the same magnitude could drastically improve access to our shared intellectual heritage. It could make a vast array of resources available to anyone at any time, anywhere.
Harvard researchers and developers have already taken the reins of this process through the non-profit Digital Public Library of America, which aims to have a functioning platform by this time next year. However, once development is complete, heavy institutional support and digitization will be required to make the project a success. That’s an area where a modernized Harvard library system could make a tremendous difference. If our library’s restructuring process better positions us to assist in this effort, it will be good for the whole nation. By lending legitimacy to such a digitization project, Harvard has the opportunity to profoundly improve the state of open information today