Today is an Historic Day for the Free Flow of Ideas

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The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) launches today at noon Eastern Time.

If you point your browser to at that moment, you will have a front-row seat at an historic event, one that might have led Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and other Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers to nod their heads and say, “Just so.”

The vision of the DPLA is “to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives and museums available to all Americans–and eventually to everyone in the world–online and free of charge.” That is how Robert Darnton, director of Harvard’s libraries, put it in a recent article in The New York Review of Books.

“Jefferson and Franklin–the champion of the Library of Congress and the printer turned philosopher-statesman,” Darnton wrote, “shared a profound belief that the health of the Republic depended on the free flow of ideas.”

He continued:

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 of the collections of our libraries accessible to all our fellow citizens–and to everyone everywhere with access to the World Wide Web. That is the mission of the DPLA.

A huge obstacle to this mission is the stranglehold that U.S. copyright law has on culture and creativity. You have to go all the way back to 1923 to find books in the public domain, as a result of Congress’s successive expansions of copyright protection. Lawrence Lessig has written forcefully on how this lockdown of culture threatens creativity, in books that include Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity(Click here for a free synopsis of the book at Wikipedia.) To its credit, the team working with Darnton decided not to wait until the copyright mess is resolved before pressing ahead with creation of the DPLA.

Today when the DPLA’s virtual doors open, we will be able to wander through the some collections of the largest university library in the world (Harvard’s), as well as collections being made available by the New York Public Library and the Smithsonian. Although it won’t go live today, a trove of copies of original manuscripts by the poet Emily Dickinson will soon be released by Harvard’s Houghton Library for access through the Digital Public Library of America as well at as Harvard’s own website.

On tomorrow’s episode of The Kindle Chronicles podcast, you will have a chance to hear Robert Darnton describe the work that has gone into making today’s historic launch possible. I interviewed him on Monday, April 15, via Skype to his office in Harvard Yard.

Meanwhile, raise your Kindle to the vision of Jefferson and Franklin and take a moment today to drop to check out the brand new Digital Public Library of America.



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