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What might the new Digital Public Library of America portend for science?

The news coverage only indirectly engages the long view for open access and scientific publishing.

A New York Times blurb announced that on 18 April in Boston, a 'small but ambitious group' from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and 'an army of volunteers' would formally introduce the long-planned Digital Public Library of America. For the long term, and maybe more immediately as well, this information-age initiative invites special attention from scientists and scientific publishers.

The DPLA seeks to see 'the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity' eventually made freely available to all, the Times reported. The blurb cited Robert Darnton, the Harvard library director and a central figure in the initiative.

The scant media coverage of DPLA's coming-out scants even further the initiative's possible implications for science at a time when no one knows how science's open-access issue will evolve. But Darnton has been presenting his DPLA long view for a long time, including in a pair of 2010 commentaries.

His August 2010 New York Times book review amounted to an essay on the balance between intellectual property rights and the rights of the commons. He declared that if 'we reassessed our history...we would reassert our citizenship in a Republic of Letters that was crucial to the creation of the American Republic—and that is more important than ever in the age of the Internet.' To emphasize the importance of the commons, he quoted physicist and statesman Benjamin Franklin: 'That as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.'

In December 2010, on the free side of the subscription wall at the New York Review of Books, Darnton offered a long essay. In part he criticized scientific journal publishers, noting, for example, that profit margins in science, technology, and medicine 'recently ran to 30–40 percent; yet those publishers add very little value to the research process, and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers.' He called for a 'Digital Public Library of America.'

From this believer in the proposition that 'publishers add very little to the research process,' one passage in particular merits the attention of scientific publishing's stakeholders:

Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices, the economics of scholarly publishing, the unbalanced budgets of libraries, and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. Instead, it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Rather than better business plans (not that they don't matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It's not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It's an appeal to change the system.

If the system changes with the planned expansion of DPLA, how will scientific journal publishing fit in or relate?

When Harvard's faculty famously voted in early 2008 for open access to scholarly publications, Darnton commented to the New York Times: 'The chorus of 'yeas' was thunderous. I hope this marks a turning point in the way communications operate in the world of scholarship.'

In his August 2010 book review, Darnton quoted not only Franklin but Thomas Jefferson: 'The field of knowledge is the common property of mankind.' In the 25 April 2013 New York Review of Books, again on the free side, that same quotation ends Darnton's new essay, 'The National Digital Public Library is launched!'

The words science, scientific, and journal never appear in this latest piece, but implications for them do.

Returning to historical framing, Darnton proposes that 'the DPLA represents the confluence of two currents that have shaped American civilization: utopianism and pragmatism':

For all its futuristic technology, the DPLA harkens back to the eighteenth century. What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?

Above all, the DPLA expresses an Enlightenment faith in the power of communication. Jefferson and Franklin—the champion of the Library of Congress and the printer turned philosopher-statesman—shared a profound belief that the health of the Republic depended on the free flow of ideas....

Thanks to the Internet and a pervasive if imperfect system of education, we now can realize the dream of Jefferson and Franklin. We have the technological and economic resources to make all the collections of all our libraries accessible to all our fellow citizens.

Darnton's new essay announces that 'a grand coalition of foundations and research libraries' is building a DPLA that 'will be a distributed system of electronic content that will make the holdings of public and research libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies available, effortlessly and free of charge.' Initially, the 'offering will be limited to a rich variety of collections—books, manuscripts, and works of art—that have already been digitized in cultural institutions throughout the country.' But around 'this core it will grow, gradually accumulating material of all kinds until it will function as a national digital library.'

Material of all kinds? This core is 'only the beginning of aggregated offerings that will grow organically as far as the budget and copyright laws permit.' Darnton foresees 'the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress within a decade.'

So how will scientific publishing relate or fit in? After the Boston Marathon terror bombing blasted as well the plans for the Boston-based DPLA's debut celebration, DPLA published online a message from its executive director, Dan Cohen.

'The tragedy took place right in front of the Boston Public Library, where we planned to have our gala launch on Thursday,' he wrote. All of those plans of the moment had to be changed, of course, but not the plans for the long term. At the end, Cohen offered a thought that matches the optimistic tone of some predictions about mixing utopianism and pragmatism to optimize open access.

'I see the building of a new library,' Cohen wrote, 'as one of the greatest examples of what humans can do together to extend the light against the darkness. In due time, we will let that light shine through.'


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.


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