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The Faith in the Power of Knowledge

January 27, 2009

Google and the Future of Books is an interesting post by Robert Darnton at The New York Review of Books…Here is its introductory paragraph…

How can we navigate through the information landscape that is only beginning to come into view? The question is more urgent than ever following the recent settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who were suing it for alleged breach of copyright. For the last four years, Google has been digitizing millions of books, including many covered by copyright, from the collections of major research libraries, and making the texts searchable online. The authors and publishers objected that digitizing constituted a violation of their copyrights. After lengthy negotiations, the plaintiffs and Google agreed on a settlement, which will have a profound effect on the way books reach readers for the foreseeable future. What will that future be?

later the author took the readers via a journey back to the eighteenth century where he discussed “the Republic of Letters”. Describing it

as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading.

According to Darnton , in the eighteenth century word spread by written letters and it was a great era of epistolary exchange.

Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson-each filling about fifty volumes-and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network.

As he adds,

…the Republic of Letters was democratic only in principle. In practice, it was dominated by the wellborn and the rich. Far from being able to live from their pens, most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made. While suffering indignities at the hands of their social superiors, they turned on one another. The quarrel between Voltaire and Rousseau illustrates their temper. After reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality in 1755, Voltaire wrote to him, “I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race…. It makes one desire to go down on all fours.” Five years later, Rousseau wrote to Voltaire. “Monsieur,…I hate you.”

In next part of the post, he discusses Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of literature…Later the author shifted from the eighteenth century to now asking if one can see a similar contradiction between practice and principle. As he narrates ,

….right here in the world of research libraries? One of my colleagues is a quiet, diminutive lady, who might call up the notion of Marion the Librarian. When she meets people at parties and identifies herself, they sometimes say condescendingly, “A librarian, how nice. Tell me, what is it like to be a librarian?” She replies, “Essentially, it is all about money and power.”

In addition, an interesting question, which he draws, is

How long does copyright extend today?

I will leave you here to read the entire article in this link

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