Here Comes the ‘Scanabego’…

By Julie Somers

Since the Library of Alexandria, knowledge has been collected and stored. It has been guarded and preserved for future generations.  However, it has also been the case that accessing these stores of knowledge can be difficult and restrictive. In a recent lecture by Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton titled ‘Digitize, Democratize: Libraries and the Digital Future’ these difficulties were addressed.

Darnton began his presentation by showing the audience the high walls and sharp spikes that prevent the outsider from entering the great libraries, such as Oxford or Yale.

Spiked Fence at library


In the middle ages, libraries also followed strict rules for access to the knowledge they held. Often, books were chained to the shelves, restricting and preserving knowledge at the same time.

Chained library

What Darnton stressed in his presentation is the need to release information into the digital world, to aggregate the holdings of research libraries and make them accessible and free of charge to the whole world.  Access to knowledge has been a buzz phrase for many years now. Open access platforms and Google books have made it almost an everyday topic, with researchers and librarians struggling to keep up with the newest rules and trends. Darnton proposes a solution that in a sense combines the two, digital books and articles presented to the public in an open access way; The Digital Public Library of America.

The DPLA, which will launch April 18th 2013, hopes to provide access to the knowledge collected and stored in libraries around the country to the general public worldwide by producing a digital library without the high walls and chained books.  To accomplish this goal, the committee behind the project has sent out a “scanabego,” a truck with scanning tools that would be driven across the country to local historical societies, offering to digitize their records in exchange for linking those records to DPLA.  This struck me as similar to the ancient librarians from Alexandria, who collected knowledge by making trips to book fairs and appropriated books off ships and caravans of travelers  that came into port, keeping the original texts and giving a copy back to the owners.

Library of Alexandria

The virtual presence of the DPLA and it’s ability to operate free of political pressure will be the two main keys to its success.  It must remain interoperable with other knowledge aggregators, such as Europeana, and it will have to wade through the mire of copyright laws. Yet, as Robert Darnton stated, “I am optimistic”.

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