The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review ...

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DECEMBER 23, 2010

Robert Darnton When I look back at the plight of American research libraries in 2010, I feel inclined to break into a jeremiad. In fact, I want to deliver three jeremiads, because research libraries are facing crises on three fronts; but instead of prophesying doom, I hope to arrive at a happy ending. I can even begin happily, at least in describing the state of the university library at Harvard. True, the economic crisis hit us hard, so hard that we must do some fundamental reorganizing, but we can take measures to make a great library greater, and we can put our current difficulties into perspective by seeing them in the light of a long history. Having begun in 1638 with the 400 books in John Harvard’s library, we now have accumulated nearly 17 million volumes and 400 million manuscript and archival items scattered through 45,000 distinct collections. I could string out the statistics indefinitely. We collect in more than 350 languages and many different formats. We have 12.8 million digital files, more than 100,000 serials, nearly 10 million photographs, online records of 3.4 million zoological specimens, and endlessly rich special collections, including the largest library of Chinese works outside of China (with the exception of the Library of Congress) and more Ukrainian titles than exist in Ukraine. We want to make it possible for other people to consult those collections by digitizing large portions of them and making them available, free of charge, to the rest of the world from an online repository. We group the material around themes such as women at work, immigration, epidemics and disease control, Islamic heritage, and scientific explorations—2.3 million pages in all. This Open Collections Program, as we call it, is part of a general policy of opening up our library to the outside world and sharing our intellectual wealth. The latest project is devoted to reading, its practices and history. It involved the digitization of more than 250,000 pages from manuscripts and rare books, including richly annotated works such as Melville’s copy of Emerson’s essays and Keats’s copy of Shakespeare.

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there is no disguising the fact that research libraries are going through hard times—times so hard that they are inflicting serious damage on the entire world of learning. Our open-access repository. A new Library Lab is inventing techniques for digital browsing and the preservation of e-mail. and born-digital archives.. and they do not just stare at it from a respectful distance. http://www. Soon there will be a million new titles published worldwide each year. Despite financial pressure.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . the iPad. and we hope to help shape the information society of the future. and all the rest. recounted in the form of three jeremiads. And we plan to collaborate with MIT in building joint digital collections. Jeremiad 1 2 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 We are expanding our enormous Digital Repository Service in a campaign not just to save digital texts but to help solve the problem of preserving them.. and it is not about to become extinct. Manuscript publishing continued to thrive for three centuries after Gutenberg. . it is that one medium does not displace another. it may be that the new technology used in print-on-demand will breathe new life into the codex—and I say this with due respect to the Kindle.. I have been invited to so many conferences on “The Death of the Book” that I suspect it is very much alive. websites. There are few places aside from research libraries where rare books and e-books can be brought together.” If the history of books teaches anything. A research library cannot ignore this production on the grounds that our readers are now “digital natives” living in a new “information age. In short. DASH. where experts in digitization explain how to adjust nuances of color while scanning medieval manuscripts. we must forge ahead on the other. The students investigate the origins of printing by examining a Gutenberg Bible. The seminar ends in a high-tech lab on the bottom floor of Widener Library.. We face three especially difficult problems. the real thing. which I would like to discuss by drawing on my own experience. because it was often cheaper to produce a small edition by hiring scribes than by printing it. But without neglecting our collections of printed books. we are looking far ahead into the twenty-first century. The codex—a book with pages that you turn rather than a scroll that you read by unrolling—is one of the greatest inventions of all time.nybooks. at least not in the short run. the digital and the analog. At Harvard we use combinations of them for teaching as well as research. In fact. It has served well for two thousand years. is making current articles by Harvard faculty available online and free of charge throughout the world. I now teach a seminar on the history of books in our rare book library. Still. we therefore are advancing on two fronts. Our purchases of e-resources increased by 25 percent at Harvard last year.m. the digital front. but they are invited to leaf (carefully) through its pages in order to appreciate the varieties of rubrication and typographical design. It begins with Gutenberg. People often talk about printed books as if they were extinct. more printed books are produced each year than the year before. In fact.

electronic books that would take advantage of the new technology to incorporate all sorts of new elements—film clips. In 2009 it came to $2. Therefore. As a rule. And graduate students fell victim to the notorious syndrome of publish or perish. Although librarians have lived with this problem for decades. http://www.. they used to spend about half of their funds on serials and half on monographs. works that fit into niches or could be marketed to a broader public but that had little to do with scholarly research. Some had nearly stopped buying monographs altogether or had eliminated them in certain fields. I soon began to appreciate the economic conditions of scholarship. often less. The originality and the quality of these e-books would legitimate a new form of scholarly communication and revive the monograph. Another rule of thumb used to prevail among the better university presses. One of the first questions that the people at Mellon asked me was “What is your business plan?” Although I had never heard of a business plan. faculty are only dimly aware of its existence—not surprisingly. the prices for institutional subscriptions to journals rose 302 percent. the drop in the demand for monographs makes university presses reduce their publication of them. because libraries pay for the In 1998 I had my first encounter with a problem that now pervades the academic world. while the consumer price index went up by 68 percent. and the disparity has continued until today.m. When this problem first dawned on me as chairman of Princeton’s library committee in the 1980s. Faced with this disparity. to reverse this trend. and the difficulty in getting them published creates barriers to careers among graduate students. By 2000 that figure had fallen to three or four hundred. It can be described as a vicious circle: the escalation in the price of periodicals forces libraries to cut back on their purchase of monographs. called Gutenberg-e. I persuaded the Andrew W. the price of journals had already increased far more than the inflation rate. By 2000 many libraries were spending three quarters of their budget on serials. professors don’t. They fell back on books about local folklore or cooking or birds. .nybooks.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . and whole collections of documents. libraries have had to adjust the proportions of their acquisitions budgets. theses in the most endangered fields. They could count on research libraries purchasing about eight hundred copies of any new monograph.86. recordings. Mellon Foundation to finance a program.753 for a non-US title. Between 1986 and 2005. The prize money would subsidize the cost of converting the dissertations into books. Columbia University Press developed a program to sell 3 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p.. an increase greater than ten times that of inflation. I thought I could do something. the presses abandoned subjects like colonial Latin America and Africa. that would award prizes to the best Ph. In 1974 the average cost of a subscription to a journal was $54. at least in a small way. As president of the American Historical Association in 1999. and not enough in most cases to cover production costs. images.D. books of a new kind.031 for a US title and $4.

and we had begun to cover our costs. Many of them raised their prices by 5 percent and sometimes more. In 2007 I became director of the Harvard University Library.. the publishers of the several Nature journals announced that they were increasing the cost of subscriptions for libraries in the University of California by 400 Although economic conditions had worsened. the giant publisher of scholarly journals based in the Netherlands.. “sustainability” had become a buzz word. It decided that it could not continue the series after the Mellon grant ran out. Profit margins of journal publishers in the fields of science. came under severe financial pressure. after seven years of struggle. In 2009. a strategic position from which to take the full measure of the business constraints on academic life. Harvard’s seventy-three libraries cut their expenditures by more than 10 percent.1 billion profit in its publishing division.368). the e-books to research libraries as a package for a moderate subscription price. and who in the humanities can compare that with the average price of a journal in language and literature ($275) or philosophy and religion ($300)? Librarians who buy these subscriptions for the use of faculty and students can shower you with statistics. the pipeline became clogged. In the end. but the scholars had difficulty in producing their books on time.082)? Who in medical schools has the foggiest notion of the price of The Journal of Comparative Neurology ($27. The books were assimilated into the Humanities E-Book program developed by the American Council of Learned Societies. Elsevier. But Gutenberg-e did not open up an escape route from the problems of sustainability that were plaguing academic life. and medicine recently ran to 30–40 percent. This year. yet those publishers add very little value to the research process. yet 2009 was a disastrous year for library budgets.m. and they are still available online. and the inflationary spiral of journal prices had continued unabated. we produced a fine series of thirty-five books. How many professors in chemistry can give you even a ballpark estimate of the cost of a year’s subscription to Tetrahedron (currently $39.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review .nybooks. but the journal publishers were not impressed. .465)? What physicist can come up with a reasonable guess about the average price of a journal in physics ($3.. made a $1. Jeremiad 2 A few years later. 4 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p. and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.. But Columbia. and the delayed output hurt sales. like many university presses. http://www. the faculty’s understanding of them had not improved. and other libraries suffered even greater reductions. The libraries responded favorably. technology.

even if they never set foot in them and consult Tetrahedron or The Journal of Comparative Neurology from computers in their labs. a British enterprise. Thanks to rigorous peer 5 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p. the faculty protest about being cut off from the circulation of knowledge. and ongoing publication costs were covered by the research grants received by the authors of the articles. unaware of the unintended consequences. which often cover “bundles” of journals. In 2001 scientists at Stanford and Berkeley circulated a petition calling for their colleagues to submit articles only to open-access journals—that is.. Foundations provided start-up funding. even though a library’s budget may decrease. it goes like this: we academics devote ourselves to research. and the publishers impose drastic cancellation fees. But they continue to sell subscriptions in bundles. either immediately or after a delay. so that one library cannot negotiate for cheaper rates by citing an advantage obtained by another library. http://www. a Nobel laureate who is now director of the National Cancer Institute. If in negotiating the renewal of a contract a library attempts to unbundle the offer in order to eliminate the least desirable journals.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . which had been publishing a whole series of them since 1999. American researchers allied with the Public Library of Science founded their own series. journals that made them available from digital repositories free of charge. have stared the problem in the face and seized it by the horns. Led by Harold Varmus. . beginning with PLoS Biology in 2003.nybooks. Reduced to essentials. Professors expect services from their libraries.m. we serve on the editorial boards of the journals... over a period of several years.. we also serve as editors (all of this unpaid. While prices continued to spiral upward. The contracts provide for annual increases in the cost of the bundle. Those fees are written into contracts. sometimes hundreds of them. professors became entrapped in another kind of vicious circle. and the publishers usually insist on keeping the terms secret. we referee the articles in the process of peer reviewing. the publishers commonly raise the prices of the other journals so much that the total cost remains the same. A few. of course). University libraries have little defense against excessive pricing. of course. and then we buy back our own work at ruinous prices in the form of journal subscriptions—not that we pay for it ourselves. we expect our library to pay for it. The effectiveness of such journals had been proven by BioMed Central. we write up the results as articles for journals. A recent court case in the state of Washington makes it seem possible that publishers will no longer be able to prevent the circulation of information about their contracts. and therefore we have no knowledge of our complicity in a disastrous system. If they cancel a subscription.

to open access. the PLoS publications were a great success. professors retained the liberty to publish in closed-access journals. often 4 percent or less. http://www. which might refuse to accept an article available elsewhere on open access or might require an embargo. They may find a second life by publishing online and by taking advantage of technological innovations such as the Espresso Book 6 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p. By a unanimous vote on February 12. In 2003 Walter Lippincott. This model has now spread to other faculties at Harvard and to other universities. the prices of commercial journals continue to rise. According to citation indexes and statistics of hits. if they exist at all? Several universities passed resolutions in favor of open access and established digital repositories for articles. professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences bound themselves to deposit all of their future scholarly articles in an open-access repository to be established by the library and also granted the university permission to distribute them. This arrangement had an escape clause: anyone could refuse to comply by obtaining a waiver. predicted that twenty-five of the eighty-two university presses in the United States would disappear within five years. review and the prestige of the authors.nybooks. is an attempt to create a coalition of universities to push journal publishing in this direction.. one after the other. it could save billions of dollars in library budgets.. up to a yearly limit. But it will only succeed in the long run. If COPE succeeds. which would be granted automatically. At Harvard we developed a new model. A supplementary program at Harvard now subsidizes publishing fees for articles submitted to open-access journals. the director of Princeton University Press.m. but they are barely holding on by their fingernails. for each professor. launched this year. It also envisages subsidies for authors who cannot expect financial help from grants or their home universities. journals will shift. rationally determined.. but the compliance rate of the professors. where grants are not so generous.. when the National Institutes of Health required the recipients of its grants to make their work available through open access —although it permitted an embargo of up to twelve months—cracks were appearing everywhere in the commercial monopoly of publishing in the medical sciences. especially those in the humanities and social sciences. They are still alive. We need open-access journals that will be self-sustaining. and the balance sheets of university presses continue to sink into the red. Meanwhile. at the production end instead of by paying for an exorbitant profit in addition to the production costs at the consumption end. open-access journals were consulted more frequently than most commercial publications. we need more than open-access repositories.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . The Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE).com/articles/archives/2010/dec/23/library-three-jer. If the monopolies of price-gouging publishers are to be broken. The idea is to reverse the economics of journal publishing by covering costs. In this way. By 2008. little by little. . 2008. If other universities adopt the same policy and if professors apply pressure on editorial boards. but it is not a business model. made them look ineffective. But what could be done in all the other disciplines.

. which will represent the authors and publishers who have an interest in price increases.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . But just when this glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. which could escalate as disastrously as the price of journals. as in the case of Google Book Search..” which is meant to resolve another conflict: the suit brought against Google by authors and publishers for alleged infringement of their copyrights. But the most important issue looming over the legal debate is one of public policy. which is already providing readers with access to millions of books. the settlement comes down to an agreement about how to divide a pie—the profits to be produced by Google Book Search: 37 percent will go to Google.m. the books that Google has digitized. Do we want to settle copyright questions by private litigation? And do we want to commercialize access to knowledge? I hope that the answer to those questions will lead to my happy ending: a National Digital 7 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p. in digitized form. but many of them have provided. And the libraries? They are not partners to the agreement. This brings me to Jeremiad 3. Despite its enormous complexity. free of charge. it was overshadowed by the most powerful technological innovation of them all: relevance-ranking search engines linked to gigantic databases. Like all commercial enterprises.. and make it available at a moderate price as an instant print-on-demand paperback. By controlling access to information. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. But the terms are embodied in a 368-page document known as the “settlement. Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search might be mitigated if Google could offer libraries access to its digitized database of books on reasonable terms. To become effective. indeed the likelihood. Machine. for an “institutional subscription” price.nybooks. when customers are hooked. The subscription price will be set by a Book Rights Registry. http://www. provided for free. it has made billions. Libraries therefore fear what they call “cocaine pricing”—a strategy of beginning at a low rate and then. which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. 63 percent to the authors and publishers. They are being asked to buy back access to those books along with those of their sister libraries. Jeremiad 3 Google represents the ultimate in business plans. print it out within four minutes. The Department of Justice has filed two memoranda with the court that raise the possibility. . that the settlement could give Google such an advantage over potential competitors as to violate antitrust laws. the settlement must be approved by the district court in the Southern Federal District of New York. This can download an electronic text from a database. ratcheting up the price as high as it will go. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment.

but several countries are now determined to out-Google Google by scanning the entire contents of their national libraries. Norway. books lying inert and underused on shelves. National libraries in Japan.Org have attempted digitization on a larger scale. More ambitious enterprises such as the Internet Archive. as some prefer to call it. Presumably. In December 2009 President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced that he would make €750 million available for digitizing the French cultural “patrimony. They may be dwarfed by Google. Since 1995 the Digital Library Federation has worked to combine their catalogues or “metadata” into a general network. The rights holders of those books would have to be compensated. All major research libraries have digitized parts of their collections. especially among academic 8 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p. http://www. The greatest obstacle is legal. Library—or a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Estimates of the cost of digitizing one page vary enormously.. why can’t the United States? Because of the cost. in fact. and Public. museums. into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. not financial. . will have made over ten million objects—from libraries. especially those published between 1923 and 1964. Far more works exist in English than in Dutch or Japanese.. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry. and the Library of Congress alone contains 30 million volumes. and Finland are digitizing virtually all of their holdings.m.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . from ten cents (the figure cited by Brewster Kahle. If these countries can create national digital libraries. newspaper. Congress would have to pass legislation to protect the DPLA from litigation concerning copyrighted. some would argue. the DPLA would exclude books currently being marketed. an effort to coordinate digital collections on an international scale. Google demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries. out-of-print books. But it should be possible to digitize everything in the Library of Congress for less than Sarkozy’s €750 million—and the cost could be spread out over a decade.Resource . to everyone in the world? To dismiss this goal as naive or utopian would be to ignore digital projects that have proven their worth and feasibility throughout the last twenty years. and Europeana. and audiovisual holdings—freely accessible online by the end of 2010. Knowledge Commons. yet many of them.. Australia. and periodical produced from 1470 to the present. archives.” The National Library of the Netherlands aims to digitize within ten years every Dutch book. who has digitized over a million books for the Internet Archive) to ten owing to the proliferation of “orphans”—books whose copyright holders have not been located. but it would include millions of books that are out of print yet covered by copyright.. a period when copyright coverage is most obscure. depending on the technology and the required quality.

its unraveling would come at an extraordinary moment in the development of an information society. All rights reserved. each digitized book that it made available could. .. its editorial decisions. might be willing to forgo compensation in order to give their books new life and greater diffusion in digitized form.The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review . if other donors agree. and its commitment to preservation for the use of future generations. uncertainty. its scanning. Google would lose nothing by this generosity. Perhaps even Google itself could be enlisted in the cause. It’s an appeal to change the system. we need a new ecology. 2010 © 1963-2010 NYREV. it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Things have come undone. and opportunity. Should the Google Book Search agreement not be upheld by the court. then those made available by their rights holders. Inc. http://www. Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices. and a coalition of research libraries could provide the one based on the public good instead of private gain. Instead. and they can be put together in new ways. Several authors protested against the commercial character of Google Book Search and expressed their readiness to make their work available free of charge in memoranda filed with the New York District Court. Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter). It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. 9 de 9 13/12/2010 04:10 p. —November 23. It would conform to the highest standards in its bibliographical apparatus. It could turn them over to the DPLA as the foundation of a collection that would grow to include more recent books—at first those from the problematic period of 1923–1964. Even if Google refused to cooperate. subordinating private profit to the public good and providing everyone with access to a commonwealth of culture. a coalition of foundations could provide enough to finance the DPLA. be identified as a contribution from Google. a great collection could be formed.m. C authors.. We have now reached a period of fluidity. and it might win admiration for its publicspiritedness.. By working systematically through their holdings. and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. the unbalanced budgets of libraries. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion.. It has digitized about two million books in the public domain. the economics of scholarly publishing.nybooks.