My friend and colleague Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library, has lately been championing the creation of a National Digital Library (for background, see this, and this), and I wholeheartedly support any plan that coordinates the efforts of our nation’s foundations and research and cultural institutions toward providing ubiquitous and permanent digital access to the cultural and scholarly record.  (Disclosure:  I was present at the meeting that Bob Darnton convened at Harvard that is described in the Chronicle article linked to above.)

The University of Michigan Library is a founding member HathiTrust, which brings together the resources and digital collections of a large and growing number of public and private libraries and institutions. The HathiTrust does not claim to be a national library, because it aspires to be much more than a national library. Certainly, HathiTrust’s collections and activities could be part of an effort that addresses the grand challenge Darnton has described.

Darnton suggests that a National Digital Library would make “the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens.”  Exactly what this would mean in practice depends on many things, not the least of which are what we might mean by “cultural patrimony” and “available.”  I suggest that the notion of a national collection based on any nation’s “cultural patrimony” is far too narrow.

The collection of the University of Michigan Library, for example, contains works on papyrus and other ancient media that are millennia older than this country. And down the hall from the Papyrus Collection is the Map Library, which contains printed maps from around the world, as well as the global data that is the foundation of modern geospatial information systems.  It simply doesn’t make sense to divide this country’s cultural patrimony from that of the rest of the world.  (And I have to admit that I’m not wild about the word “patrimony,” either.  Many have suggested that “heritage,” would be better, and I believe that Robert Darnton would accept this as a friendly amendment.)

In any case, libraries don’t distinguish between “our” cultural heritage and the cultural heritage from the rest of the world. Libraries, to the extent that their collection efforts are purposeful—and mostly they are—acquire what is intellectually and culturally important, and what is wanted or needed by their clients. This is reflected in the fact that more than 50 percent of the content in the HathiTrust Digital Library—whose partners as of this writing all reside in the United States—is written in a language other than English.  The same is true of Harvard’s libraries, which suggests that Darnton’s idea of  “cultural patrimony” is more inclusive than the words themselves might seem to indicate.

Even the Library of Congress—a government institution—expresses its mission in broader terms. “The Library’s mission is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.” (The italics are mine.)

A universal collection of knowledge. What libraries have always striven to provide, and what library patrons have always desired, has now been made possible by new information technologies.  This is the collection that I believe that Bob Darnton is seeking to build, and just such a collection is being collated by the growing partnership that is HathiTrust.

Darnton says he hopes “that the HathiTrust could somehow evolve to become a fundamental building block of a future digital library,” and he goes on to declare that this would “require the permission of Google.” I’m happy to concur with his ambition and also to report that we already have the permission we need from Google to build such a library. U-M’s original agreement with Google, and Google’s subsequent similar agreements with other libraries, contain clauses that permit us to share our Google-digitized copies with other libraries. HathiTrust rests upon this foundation, and Google’s authorization is explicitly confirmed in Michigan’s 2009 amended agreement with Google.

What Google cannot authorize, because it is not in its purview, is the unfettered circulation of in-copyright digital material. I turn to this, what Darnton calls the “vexed question,” and which he prefers to set aside for a later stage of the National Digital Library initiative, because the solution to this problem, the answer to the vexed question, is the sine qua non of any digital library—local, national, or universal—that aims to make the entirety of its content readily available to all comers.

The clause in the U.S. Constitution that is the foundation for copyright law gives Congress the power “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries”. Copyright law as it stands is working against the very progress that our founders intended to promote—progress that arguably is itself our national cultural heritage, rather than any collection of material, no matter how comprehensive. Restricted access to digital libraries is only one example of current copyright law’s stifling effect, but it’s an important one. The HathiTrust partners are working on the problem, but it’s going to require a powerful coalition and legislative action to make the requisite changes. I hope the representatives of the foundations, libraries, and cultural institutions that have been gathering to discuss Darnton’s proposal will direct the bulk of their energy and resources into this effort, so we can together give the world the universal digital library it deserves.