Darnton on Google and Libraries

There is an entertaining and instructive piece about libraries The Library in the New Age and their exciting future, from Robert Darnton (distinguished historian of print and librarian at Harvard) in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. A lot of his focus is on Google and Google Book Search, but the conclusions of the article are surprisingly conservative: “Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter.” It is as though Darnton is reluctant to risk a political or philosophical view on the way the digital library should evolve: as though it were not a historian’s job to make that risky judgement.

Arguably this caution comes from a proper historical modesty, but Darnton recognises the importance of the digital turn for libraries, and big decisions will come his way this year and next. He is, after all, the director of Harvard’s library, one of Google’s founding partners and the richest academic library in the world, so Harvard will be setting standards and should be blazing trails. Perhaps he will be bolder in a digital vein when he orchestrates policy for his institution.