Robert Darnton is a professor and university librarian at Harvard University.
Some have detected a revolutionary message behind the choice of today as the date to launch the Digital Public Library of America—a project to make the holdings of libraries, archives, and museums freely available in digital form to all Americans. They’re right.
“On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five,” as Longfellow put it in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” Paul Revere did not merely warn the farmers of Lexington and Concord that the redcoats were coming. His “midnight message” was a call for liberty. To free Americans’ access to knowledge may not be so dramatic, but it is equally important; for Revere and all the founding fathers knew that a republic could not flourish unless its citizens were educated and informed.
Nor is it a coincidence that the launching pad of the Digital Public Library of America is the Boston Public Library, the first great public library in America, which proclaims in letters chiseled over its main entrance, “Free to All.” That is the revolutionary message of the DPLA. It will make our country’s heritage available to everyone and at no charge: “Free to All.”...