A bookshelf the size of the world

Inside the vision for the largest library in history

Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, and others are working to create a worldwide digital public library. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff) Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, and others are working to create a worldwide digital public library.

Richard Beck

As the digitization of human culture accelerates, publishers and academics have had to begin addressing a basic question: Who will control knowledge in the future?

So far, the most likely answer to that question has been a private company: Google. Since 2004 Google Books has been scanning books and putting them online; the company says it has already scanned more than 15 million. Google estimates there are about 130 million books in the world, and by 2020, it plans to have scanned them all.

Now, however, a competitor may be emerging. Last year, Robert Darnton, a cultural historian and director of Harvard University’s library system, began to raise the prospect of creating a public digital library. This library would include the digitized collections of the country’s great research institutions, but it would also bring in other media – video, music, film – as well as the collection of Web pages maintained by the Internet Archive.

Like Google Books, it would have as its goal the eventual digitization of human culture, preserving the works of the world’s authors, scholars, artists, and entertainers and making them widely available. Unlike Google Books, however, this library would not be operated by a for-profit company. It would be accessible to any person, in any place, at any time, at no cost.

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