I think a Digital Public Library of America is a fine idea. I do not think what is being built remotely relates to the rhetoric it is being promoted with. Here’s the problem, in two consecutive paragraphs from the announcement in the New York Review of Books
“For example, in serving as a hub, Harvard plans to make available to the DPLA by the time of its launch 243 medieval manuscripts; 5,741 rare Latin American pamphlets; 3,628 daguerreotypes, along with the first photographs of the moon and of African-born slaves; 502 chapbooks and “penny dreadfuls” about sensational crimes, a popular genre of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and 420 trial narratives from cases involving marriage and sexuality. Harvard expects to provide a great deal more in the following months, notably in fields such as music, cartography, zoology, and colonial history. Other libraries, archives, and museums will contribute still more material from their collections. The total number of items available in all formats on April 18 will be between two and three million.
How will such material be put to use? I would like to end with a final example. About 14 million students are struggling to get an education in community colleges—at least as many as those enrolled in all the country’s four-year colleges and universities. But many of them—and many more students in high schools—do not have access to a decent library. The DPLA can provide them with a spectacular digital collection, and it can tailor its offering to their needs. Many primers and reference works on subjects such as mathematics and agronomy are still valuable, even though their copyrights have expired. With expert editing, they could be adapted to introductory courses and combined in a reference library for beginners.”
On what planet does Darnton suppose that pre-1923 math and agronomy textbooks would be helpful for community college students?
The project is a great idea. The rhetoric is ridiculously overblown, and doesn’t relate at all to what’s actually being done, which is trying to build an infrastructure so that the special collections of research libraries can be searched from one place. That project is a great idea. DPLA has been plagued by Hype Deficit Disorder from the beginning
What Harvard is offering to share at the start is the digital equivalent of its archival junk drawer.