Nonprofit “Digital Public Library Of America” To Launch In April 2013

The Google Books project (just today pared down a bit) always impressed me with its sheer scope. Offering modern e-books is all well and good, but that’s more of a business problem. It’s the scanning and free availability of thousands upon thousands of old books that struck me as a worthwhile endeavor.

But publishers and booksellers have been wary of the service, knowing that Google is a fan of free, and their scan-first, ask-permission-later strategy caused some consternation as well. And while access to all that knowledge is appreciated, it is lost on no one that the data is in the hands of a for-profit company.

Enter the Digital Public Library of America, which aims to create a similar catalog of works, but both more comprehensive and unimpeded by commercial motives. It’s been in the works for a while, but it seems it may finally launch as early as a year from now.

The news comes from Robert Darnton, Harvard University librarian and member of the DPLA’s steering committee, who at a recent event made a serious promise that the project would launch in April of 2013.

There’s a lot of work to be done if that’s true: the project aims to unify such disparate sources as the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive, various academic collections, and presumably any other collection that would be meaningful to include. And they have yet to even decide such issues as how near to the present their catalog will come. There is an ongoing dispute regarding so-called “orphan works” and other questions of copyright, and the problem is far from trivial.

Darnton suggests a rolling off-limits period, perhaps between five and ten years before the present, from which no books would be added to the collection. But outside that limit (and yearly, as a new publication year is added to the archive), works would be added on an opt-out basis — the same basis that caused so much anger when Google did it, scanning thousands of works whose copyright information they had not ascertained.

In fact, during the Q&A period following Darnton’s talk, the man who led the Authors Guild suit against Google, Nick Taylor, asked whether any authors had been consulted in the planning of this potentially precedent-setting policy. Darnton replied that authors as a “sector” had not been consulted, but that many of the people on the steering committee were authors themselves and sympathized with the needs of that particular set.

We’re still in the early stages of this archival process; even the Internet Archive and Google’s massive book collection are, in some ways, rather crude first steps. The DPLA is ambitious and may face serious obstacles, but it’s to be expected when they’re making it up as they go along.