The vision must have been — in its own way — almost terrifying: every book ever written, every thought ever committed to writing, all the knowledge in the world, stored within the walls of a single, gleaming edifice.  Experts agree that what we know today about the Royal Library at Alexandria is half history, half myth.  Demetrius of Phaleron, the Greek statesman and orator, is said to have conceived of the Temple of the Muses and its legendary bibiliothekai while living in exile under the protection of Ptolemy I Soter of Alexandria.  The library is believed to have been destroyed by a succession of wars and fires — one of them famously ordered by Julius Caesar.

People have since built libraries and universities after this ancient paradigm in every major city in every part of the world.  Many of these modern public libraries and places of learning house collections that are nothing less than spectacular, but none come close to the mythic vision of the original.

New technology for an ancient vision

Today, the establishment of a truly universal library is within our grasp.  The technology is certainly available.   The worldwide web already makes massive stores of information accessible to anyone connected to the network, and e-mail and RingCentral VOIP services allow people to communicate and exchange documents with no more than a few clicks of the mouse.  All that needs to be done, in fact, is to digitize the books already stored in the world’s great libraries.

In 2010, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society proposed to do just that, announcing a massive and ambitious project to coordinate the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  As originally conceived, the DPLA website would have offered online access to the vast and diverse collection of books stored in major libraries, creating a free, open and democratic online library in the process.  But the visionary endeavor has since been bogged down by legal issues, frustrating scholars, observers, and the many millions who would have benefited from the project’s completion.

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Legal impediments

The  DPLA’s legal troubles stem from copyright restrictions which disallow most books published over the last 100 years in online databases.  Apparently, these books have yet to enter the public domain.  This is after recent legislative measures introduced amendments to relevant copyright laws.  “Early copyright legislation guaranteed that no book would remain under private control for very long,” according to Nicholas Carr in an article written for Technology Review.  Carr says this changed beginning in the 1970s, when — under pressure from Hollywood and various entertainment companies — US Congress passed a series of bills that dramatically lengthened the term of copyright for books written throughout most of the last century.

“Some scholars believe copyright restrictions will frustrate any attempt to create a universal online library unless Congress changes the law,” Carr writes.

A dream on hold

The democratization of knowledge is among the most enduring aspirations of mankind.  For centuries, access to education and knowledge was bestowed only on a selected few.  These few, favored by birth or wealth, would have continued their now discredited system had it not been for the labors of those took up the banner of reform, arguing, in turn, that all men have the right to learn, and in learning become free.  With the internet, that dream has come within tantalizing reach of people in practically every part of the planet; the worldwide web lends itself easily to the sharing of knowledge on a broad, sweeping and inclusive scale:  a farmer from Kenya or a cabbie from Brooklyn gets no less Google or Wikipedia than — say — Bill Gates.  And that is a good thing.  Many are hopeful that America’s best libraries will one day be allowed to expand on this spirit of equity.

Until that day comes, however, it appears the DPLA will have to put on hold the fulfillment of a dream that humanity has cherished for well over 2,000 years.