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Harvard Leads Digital Library Initiative

Digital library might eventually include all printed books

A view of Widener Library from Harvard Yard shortly after sunrise.
A view of Widener Library from Harvard Yard shortly after sunrise.
By Gautam S. Kumar and Sirui Li, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard is solidifying plans to lead one of the largest national efforts to create a digitized public library.

The proposed Digital Public Library of America will serve as an open online collection of digitized books and texts that project leaders hope could one day incorporate every volume ever published.

Guided by a Steering Committee at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the project remains in its initial planning phase. But in the wake of a New York District Court’s ruling last month against the Google Books Library Project, citing concerns of monopoly power, the spotlight has fallen on the DPLA, which will allow free access to the volumes.

There is a “need to pivot very quickly from the discussion phase to the implementation phase,” said Harvard Law Professor John G. Palfrey ’94, a co-director of the Berkman Center and a leader in the DPLA project.

The DPLA will be the product of a collaboration between the largest library systems in the nation, already including Harvard, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution.

“The promise of the idea is attracting a lot of people at least to be involved even if they are skeptical of our ability to pull it off,” he said. “We have many of the biggest players at the table.”

If implemented successfully, the project will “make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all,” according to its online concept note.

Paul N. Courant, a member of the steering committee and a professor at the University of Michigan, said that he thought “success over some period is almost inevitable.”

The project received planning-stage support in December when it secured a $125,000 start-up fund from the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

But despite current enthusiasm, the scope of the project humbles even the leaders behind it. And members of the Steering Committee still say that the DPLA is in too early a stage to provide a set time-frame for the project.

“There is a sense that we ought to do things relatively quickly,” Courant said. “I think we should make substantial progress by this calendar year.”

Once the proposal goes into implementation phase, the Steering Committee must scan a large number of printed materials, negotiate with various publishers on copyright protected materials, and deal with a multi-million dollar annual operating budget.

For example, Europeana—a multi-lingual collection of millions of digitized items from European museums, libraries, and other archives—runs an annual operating cost of $7.1 million, according to company reports.

But Palfrey said that Europeana did not engage in costly digitization efforts, which could require hundreds of millions of dollars.

Before reaching the digitization phase, the Steering Committee must still pursue more partnerships with other major national library systems.

According to Palfrey, the committee hopes to host a “very large-scale” event in Washington, D.C. this fall in order to bring together the larger community of stakeholders.

Project organizers have invited the public to an open discussion regarding strategies for improving access to online resources.

Potential stakeholders can stay up to date on the project’s progress by going to its crowd-sourced website where organizers solicit comments.

“Scores of people have been contributing,” said Jerome J. McGann, a member of the Steering Committee and professor from the University of Virginia.

“There are many ideas in play [and] there is nothing hidden right now,” McGann added.

Back in 2005, the University agreed to let Google scan 850,000 volumes that were in the public domain.

Harvard disassociated with the project in 2008, when the company approached Harvard to expand its digitization efforts to include the libraries’ remaining 15 million volumes, which were under copyright protection.

According to Director of the Harvard Library Robert C. Darnton ’60, while Google agreed to pay for the digitization of the books, the firm was not covering costs of transporting the volumes—which would have cost around $1.9 million.

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at gkumar@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Sirui Li can be reached at sli@college.harvard.edu.

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FASHarvard Law SchoolHumanities DivisionSocial Sciences DivisionFAS AdministrationLibraries