Digital libraries: who should be in charge -- commercial or public interests?

Digitizing the world's written works is a worthy goal, but we may need to think about who will be overseeing the effort.

In an editorial in today's New York Times, Harvard library director Robert Darnton lauds the court decision to block Google's settlement with authors and publishers in its drive to digitize every written work on the planet, but also points out that Google is pursuing a worthy goal.

Rather than leaving the work -- and potential access control -- over a digitized written heritage to a commercial operation, Darnton says this is a role that should be undertaken by some type of national "digital public library" that could operate above and beyond the constraints of digital rights management concerns. Darnton even suggests that Google can play a major role in this effort.

"All major research libraries have digitized parts of their collections. Large-scale enterprises like the Knowledge Commons and the Internet Archive have themselves digitized several million books. A number of countries are also determined to out-Google Google by scanning the entire contents of their national libraries. France is spending 750 million euros to digitize its cultural treasures; the National Library of the Netherlands is trying to digitize every Dutch book and periodical published since 1470; Australia, Finland and Norway are undertaking their own efforts."

Of course, digitizing the world's written works isn't a seamless overnight conversion -- it takes a lot of work, time and commitment. In a recent post here at SmartPlanet, we described how Finland's National Library is digitizing its vast collection of historical works, but still faces a huge manual undertaking to catch all the gaps and mistakes left by optical character recognition.

There is digitization already taking place at a number of levels across North America. Many libraries across the land -- public, academic and special -- have been struggling to redefine their roles and services in this digital era, and many are repositioning themselves as repositories of both digital and print resources. A recent study to which I contributed finds that demand for digital materials -- including ebooks -- is on the rise from lending institutions.

Digitization not only enables access to written works on a global scale, but also preserves them in a high-quality format for viewing by many generations to come.  Of course, that assumes we don't switch to some unforeseen format that renders all current media obsolete -- which seems to happen every decade.

This post was originally published on