Harvard Library hosts conversation on access to 20th-century knowledge

2 min read

Increased access to digital materials advances knowledge while presenting complex issues. In “The Future of the Book,” a Harvard Library Strategic Conversation, audience members discussed how knowledge has been handed down over centuries and how to ensure that copyright and technology do not interfere with the longevity of 20th-century works.

Panelists Jim O’Donnell, a Georgetown University professor and former provost, and Ellen Faran, director of MIT Press, spoke on the shift from print to digital, and the discussion was moderated by Ann Blair, Harvard College professor and Henry Charles Lea Professor of History.

O’Donnell, a champion of new technologies in higher education, made the case that making books available digitally is the only way to guarantee their availability and influence. However, relying on proprietary, commercial formats from outlets like Amazon would be a mistake. Creating a reliable, stable, non-proprietary digital format with rich metadata to preserve and protect 20th-century culture is the collective responsibility of librarians, academics, authors, estates, and publishers.

“Can we find a non-partisan, non-judgmental way to preserve and extend the reach of works from the last 100 years?” O’Donnell asked. Noting that 83% of library holdings are post-1923, governed by copyright law, and on irregular platforms, he continued, “My fear is that one day, someone like me will stand a few blocks from here and say that when it comes to literature from the 20th century, you can just forget about it.”