Scholar and Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton vowed that the Digital Public Library of America, a nonprofit, nationwide effort to digitize and offer access to millions of free, digitized books and special collections would launch by April of 2013. “I make this promise to you,” Darnton said at the close of his talk, entitled “Digitize, Democratize: Libraries and the Future of Books": “We will get this done.”

Darnton made his remarks as the featured speaker at the 25th Annual Horace S. Manges Lecture, hosted by the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School. The lectured offered a fascinating look at the history of copyright and the book trade, dating back to its roots in Europe, through the founding fathers, the building of libraries of America, and the recent travails surrounding Google’s digitization plan. The primary tension, Darnton noted, was between “democratization and commercialization." He acknowledged that commercial interests need to be respected, but said the issue today, in an age when we have the ability and the technology to offer broad access to culture, is “how we can find just equilibrium.” Darnton spoke of the controversial Google plan to scan library shelves as a case in point. He said the program began as a “great idea,” but in its ultimately failed legal settlement, it become a commercial library, with no public oversight, or public purpose.

As for the DPLA, Darnton said the steering committee was wrestling with the issues of getting the project going, noting that copyright-related issues were the biggest challenge. The DPLA must accommodate the “legitimate interests of the book industry,” he noted, as well as the interests of image, sound recording and film rightsholders. His idea (which was not necessarily the idea of the DPLA steering committee) was to “steer clear of books currently in the marketplace.” He suggested “a moving wall” that would advance year by year as rights expired, as well as the ability for rightsholders to opt-in, should they wish to make their materials available, or opt-out, if a rightsholder decided they did not wish to participate. This plan, however, failed to address the millions of orphan works out there, Darnton acknowledged, a thorny issue that will almost certainly require some legislative action.

At the outset, Darnton confessed the plan had something of a “Utopian” ring to it. "But I might as well confess,” he said, “I have a sympathy for Utopianism." History demonstrates, he said, “that things can fall apart, often in revolutionary moments, in ways that can release Utopian energy.”

The talk was warmly received, with only one potential chance for drama: while those asking questions at the end did not announce their names or affiliations, the final question of the evening came from Nick Taylor, the man who led the Authors Guild when the Google lawsuits were first filed. Taylor bluntly asked Darnton whether authors were involved in the planning of the DPLA. Darnton said the DPLA steering committee was not set up to accommodate the interests of “sectors” like "authors" and "publishers." However, he noted, most of the steering committee themselves, including Darnton, were authors, and were sensitive to needs of authors.