If research libraries are to flourish in the future, they must band together. They prospered in the twentieth century by pursuing self-interest independently of one another and of interference by the state. But in the twenty-first century, they face the impossible task of advancing on two fronts, the analog and the digital. Their acquisitions budgets cannot bear the weight. Therefore, they must form coalitions, agreeing to invest in some subjects while leaving others to their allies. They must develop common off-site depositories, perfect interlibrary loans, exchange documents electronically, prepare interoperative metadata, integrate their catalogs, and coordinate their digitizing.
Experiments of this kind have been tried and failed, I know. But we must try again. Through trial and error, we must inch forward toward the creation of a national and then an international digital library. Google has demonstrated its feasability and also the danger of getting it wrong - that is, of favoring private profit at the expense of the public good.
Technological changes wash over the information landscape too rapidly for anyone to know what it will look like ten years from now. But now is the time to act, if we want to channel change for the benefit of everyone. We need action by the state to prevent monopoly and interaction among the libraries to promote a common program. Digitize and democratize - not an easy formula, but the only one that will do if we really mean to realize the ideal of a republic of letters, which once seemed hopelessly utopian.
From The Case for Books by Robert Darnton.
At time of writing, there are still tickets available to hear Robert Darnton lecture on the Digital Public Library of America and its implications for the future of digital libraries. The lecture is on Tuesday 17th January at the Royal Society in London. I am massively excited to be going.