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Robert Darnton: A historian looking into the future

DEC . 03 2019
Peking University, Dec. 3, 2019: Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library from 2007 to 2016, visited Peking University on October 25. Professor Darnton gave a lecture and held a discussion with PKU students and teachers, sharing rich experiences of his life and career.


At the lecture

Born into a family of journalists, Professor Robert Darnton always thought that he’d become one as well. And he did. But that’s only half of the story.

As a reporter, Professor Darnton had plenty of experience, more than most people his age usually would have had. He started writing news articles when he was 15, and in college, he was able to acquire a summer job working for a small newspaper company in New Jersey, USA. His whole summer was spent running in and out of police headquarters and writing crime stories for newspaper. The next summer, he worked various jobs for New York Times. After getting a scholarship for Oxford, he started working for the London Bureau as a student, while also writing actual news in the summer. Finishing his Ph.D., he returned to New York, immediately securing a permanent post writing crime stories for the New York Times. Three months later, he quit.

“People think it’s exciting, you know, chasing after the police, but I’d done that already. And I said to myself, what you like, what you love, is history. I love studying history, just love it.”

A historian who renounces “new” and turns to anthropology

Professor Darnton had always loved history, and now he’s a historian, truly living up to his dream. He specializes in the 18th century France history, particularly concerning himself with the literary world of Enlightenment France, and he enjoys great prestige in the field. After graduating from Harvard University, he attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, and earned his Ph.D. in history there. Among many of his awards and honors are Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, an award given by the French government, and an award for distinguished achievement from the American Printing History Association. Although he has been regarded by many as a leading figure of the so-called “new cultural history”(cultural history, as opposed to social history, is a sub-discipline of history which seeks to interpret historical experience in terms of cultural factors). However, Darnton himself rejected the name “new cultural historian”. Quite paradoxically, Professor Darnton observed that, “historians like the word ‘new’”, so they coined terms like “the new linguistic turn”, “the new history of emotions”, etc. But he would not take these terms seriously. For him, these are fashions. And to do serious research, you cannot follow the fashion blindly and be “in the wind.” Instead, one has to build his or her work on the solid ground of intensive reading and in-depth thinking. The process of working day in and day out and reading tens of hundreds of documents is a necessity for anyone. What written on the paper informs the author’s way of thinking, and one can tell easily if it is superficial and trendy. Therefore, Professor Darnton concluded, “I’m never trying to say that I’m a historian of the new cultural history, I just do it.”

Consequently, his study on the history of mentalities (or anthropological history) is not because it is new, but because he finds it terrific and interesting. “Part of the vocation of the historian is to get inside the metal universe of other people.” It is on this belief that Darnton wrote his first book Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France , which was an attempt to do history in mentalities. He is much interested in the way people conceive the world around them, their attitudes and values. This interest leaded him to co-teach a course with an anthropologist at Princeton University for 20 years, which also benefited himself a lot.

A scholar who is trying to solve the information dilemma

An accomplished historian, Professor Darnton is also an academic librarian. He has just retired from Harvard University Library as Director. While working there, Professor Darnton noticed a dilemma that many scholars face. The price of online academic journals has skyrocketed over the last few years, and many libraries, due to the spiraling expenses and decreasing budgets, have been forced to drop many subscriptions. This is quite an inconvenience for many scholars.

“We write the articles, reference the articles, edit the articles, and then buy them back at exorbitant prices.” Professor Darnton has voiced the thoughts of scholars around the world. Information shouldn’t be monopolized, he thinks, and so, he proposed the DPLA (the Digital Public Library of America). “We want to make everything in our libraries available to the world, free of charge.”

Now, the DPLA has been up and running for 6 years. Allowing people to browse by places, by time period, or even books right next to it on the “shelf”, the DPLA is definitely user-friendly. What’s more, DPLA has no algorithms used in its searches. “At one point, Google decided I was French. Because I use so many French sources that everything came up French.” DPLA does not decide who you are; it simply lists the books in relevance to your search.

It goes without saying that, to carry out such a prodigious project as DPLA is bound to encounter many difficulties. For one, DPLA does not yet have a long-term business plan, because it is currently being funded by private organizations. But the biggest problem DPLA is currently battling with is the copyright. According to the law, copyright protection lasts for 70 years after the author’s death. Most books would be outdated before they lose copyright protection. The Author’s Alliance, where authors can willingly give up their copyright, is one of Professor Darnton’s solution to this problem.

A librarian who is hopeful for the future

Many people worry that paperback books will be completely replaced by e-books, with which Professor Darnton disagrees. “Newspapers did not wipe out the printed book; the radio did not replace the newspaper; television did not destroy the radio; and the Internet did not make viewers abandon their television sets.” A new medium of communication cannot completely replace the old one, just like the Internet did not replace all preceding mediums. In Professor Darnton’s opinion, e-books and paperback books are not enemies, but allies. In his book Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteen-Century Paris, Professor Darnton included a series of links to where readers could listen to the musical poetry discussed in the book. Instead of replacing the paperback book, the electronic form is actually expanding its possibilities.

It’s quite obvious that Professor Darnton is a supporter of digital humanity. Big data makes finding information easier, which can help in many aspects of research. But it hasn’t reached his expectations yet. “I don’t think big data has changed our understanding of anything. Before that we had quantitative analysis, now we just have more sophisticated quantitative analysis.” Professor Darnton hopes that in the digitized future, humans’ understanding of the world may expand and deepen.

It’s true though, that in the digital age, information’s threshold has gone down, making it harder to navigate the cyberspace of knowledge. But this doesn’t discourage Professor Darnton. People need librarians even more, since we are in the digital age. And so, Professor Darnton has created the DPLA, where librarians around may digitize their books for the world.

“We need free access to our culture, and we want to make it free to everyone.” DPLA may be new and budding, but it has a bright future ahead of it.

Reported by: Cherlin Xu, Yang Hongyun
Edited by: Huang Weijian