Congress needs to enact Orphan Works legislation, and well-endowed charitable foundations need to step up to the plate to fund infrastructure for decentralized access to digitized books, says cultural historian and Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton in a new essay in the New York Review of Books.
Darnton points to a European Union digital library effort called Europeana as a pioneer of access to digital libraries of books.
"Instead of accumulating collections of its own, it will function as an aggregator of aggregators -- that is, it will standardize data that flows in from providers in centralized locations, which themselves will have integrated data derived from many individual sources," he explains. "Information will therefore be accumulated and coordinated at three levels: particular libraries will digitize their collections; national or regional centers will integrare them into central databases; and Europeana will transform those databases, from 27 constituent countries, into a single, seamless network. To the users, the information will remain invisible. They will simply search for an item -- a book, an image, a recording, or a video -- and the system will direct them to a digitized version of it, wherever it may be, making it available for downloading on a personal computer or a handheld device."
Darnton acknowledges that one big task facing the architects of such a system is the creation of a systematic code of metadata among the various libraries.
Apparently, and miraculously, the staff of Europeana at The Hague has achieved that feat among the various institutions.
"Unlike Google, it will not store digital files in a single database or server farm. It will operate as a nerve center for what is known as a 'distributed network,' leaving libraries, archives, and museums to digitize and preserve their own collections in the capillary system of the organic whole," he writes.
Darnton has been a vocal, and prolific critic of the Google book settlement. He composed the essay to explain why in his view the book settlement failed, and how the worthy concept can be resuscitated.