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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Robert Darnton

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Pessimist? Optimist? Why not go all out and embrace the great American tradition of the jeremiad? Given the slightest excuse, we Americans rend our garments, fill the air with lamentations, and prophesy doom. The end is approaching; strap on your seatbelts; we are going to hell. Evidence can be found everywhere: harvests wilting, prices rising, oil spills gushing, banks defaulting, Congress stalemating, and the economy threatening to collapse.

From my corner of the world (I am a professor and a university librarian), there is a lot to lament, beginning with the use of language. Students’ papers contain phrases such as “between you and I.” Deans say, “going forward” instead of “in the future.” And a corporate idiom has invaded everything. We deal in “trade-offs” and “takeaways” and can’t pursue a course of action without issuing “mission” and “vision” statements, preferably in color and with arrows pointing to boxes meant to show where we are headed and how we intend to get there.

I take the language as a symptom of something more serious: the commercialization of the world of knowledge. Learning never was free, and research libraries are complex organizations, which require business plans. But how can we balance our budgets when the price of scholarly journals, set by monopolistic publishers, has spiraled out of control? The average institutional subscription price to a journal in physics is now $3,368 a year, and several journals cost $30,000.

It once seemed as though Google would democratize access to knowledge by digitizing all the books in our research libraries. But when Google struck a deal with the authors and publishers who had sued it for breach of copyright, it turned its digitizing operation into a commercial venture; the prices it could charge libraries for subscriptions to its database could have escalated as badly as the prices of journals did. Fortunately, a New York court declared the deal unacceptable because it threatened to eliminate all competition, and now we have an alternative to Google Book Search.

I refer to the Digital Public Library of America, a project to digitize millions of books and to make them available free of charge to everyone in the world. Far from being a utopian dream, this plan is doable. A coalition of foundations will provide the funding, and a coalition of libraries will supply the books. We will announce its details at a conference in Washington, D.C., on October 21, and we expect it to begin providing books and all kinds of digital material to the public within three years.

Despite my lamentations, therefore, I look forward to a promising future, at least insofar as ordinary people will have access to their cultural heritage. Am I an optimist? Yes, but not a cockeyed optimist.

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Robert Darnton is the Carl. H. Pforzheimer University Professor and university librarian at Harvard. He is the author, most recently, of Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Belknap).