Google’s ambitious book-scanning program is foundering in the courts. Now a Harvard-led group is launching its own sweeping effort to put our literary heritage online. Will the Ivy League succeed where Silicon Valley failed?
But Harvard’s Darnton has one thing in common with Google’s Page: an ardent desire to see a universal library established online, a library that would, as he puts it, “make all knowledge available to all citizens.” In the 1990s he initiated two groundbreaking projects to digitize scholarly and historical works, and by the end of the decade he was writing erudite essays about the possibilities of electronic books and digital scholarship. In 2007 he was recruited to Harvard and named the director of its library system, giving him a prominent perch for promoting his dream. Although Harvard was one of the original partners in Google’s scanning scheme, Darnton soon became the most eminent and influential critic of the Book Search settlement, writing articles and giving lectures in opposition to the deal. His criticism was as withering as it was learned. Google Book Search, he maintained, was “a commercial speculation” that, under the liberal terms of the settlement, seemed fated to grow into “a hegemonic, financially unbeatable, technologically unassailable, and legally invulnerable enterprise that can crush all competition.” It would become “a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel, but of access to information.”