André de Melo Araújo About the author


Darnton, Robert. The case for books: past, present and future

André de Melo Araújo

Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI). Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, Goethestr. 3145128 Essen - Germany.

New York: Public Affairs, 2009. 240p.

Based on the correspondence between editors, philosophical writers and booksellers, as well as contracts granting the right to print and sell the Encyclopédie, Robert Darnton identifies in The Business of Enlightenment (1979) publisher conflicts and lucrative maneuvers in the lettered culture market in the 1700s. Thirty years after the first edition of this study, and taking into account the mechanisms of control for the production and circulation of printed knowledge, Darnton presents in The case for books (2009) challenging divergences and lucid identities between the (almost) two and a half centuries that separate pre-revolutionary France from the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The thematic identity common to the two works is also present in the current reworking of the opening phrase of the 1979 text. In The Business of Enlightenment Darnton describes the results of his research as "a book about a book". In The Case for Books the historian reuses his consecrated formula by publishing "a book about books" (p.vii). In the plural the author inscribes the first divergent situation. In 1979 Darnton studied the history of the publication of a single book, the Encyclopédie. Thirty years later, and after having been director of Harvard University's network of libraries for a little over two years, Darnton identifies in the position he assumed in June 2007 "an opportunity to do something about the questions which... he had studied as historic phenomena" (p.ix).

These questions were preeminent: "as soon as I transferred to the new office, I discovered that Harvard Library was involved in secret conversations with Google about a project that took my breath away", Darnton reports. "Google planned to digitalize millions of books, starting with Harvard's collection and with those of another three university libraries, and to make the digital copies available commercially..." (p.ix). The commercialization project for millions of books in a digital format reminded the historian of the traités which he had read to study the business of Enlightenment and to identify the necessary plural form of its new starting point. Based on the large number of books already digitalized, Darnton resolved to reflect principally on the role of research libraries and their possible paths in the era of knowledge stored in silicon memories.

The Case for Books is a collection of eleven texts published between 1982 and 2009, divided into three parts published in this order: future, present and past. In the book's title Darnton not only suggests the traditional form of storing books - on a book case -, but also echoes through the assonance between the words four and for the nucleus of the futuristic fantasy of Louis Sébastien Mercier, known since 1771 and according to which the voluminous collection of printed knowledge will be a thing of the past. The truth of the future will fit "into the four bookcases" (p.44). Darnton, thus, starts with the future of the past to sound a warning about the present of the future: "We could have created a digital national library - the twenty-first century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late. We have not only failed to conceive this possibility, but, which is even worse, we are allowing that a question of public policy - the control of access to information - is determined by private lawsuit" (p.17). I summarize below Darnton's three central concerns about the future.

1) In studying the eighteenth century culture of letters, the historian locates, starting with the France case, a project for the opening and spreading of knowledge which in principle was universalist. Nevertheless, the enlightenment project paradoxically restricted its universalism to the economically favored population. Darnton's first alert about the future is about paid access to knowledge networks controlled in turn by a private monopoly. Darnton really talks about Google and archive digitalization projects with very enthusiastically. However, his concern is with what he calls "monopolistic tendencies" (p.33).

2) The author insists that public institutions should have a more active presence in policy decisions about access to knowledge: "Yes, we have to digitalize. But more importantly: we have to democratize. We have to open access to our cultural heritage. How? Rewriting the rules of the game, subordinating private interests to the public good..." (p.13). In this way Darnton proposes the union of libraries in the future in the name of a project of a large public digital library (p.57): "Openness, free access, is the guiding principle that we should seek to follow to adapt libraries to the conditions of the twenty-first century" (p.50).

3) By emphasizing the high price that libraries currently pay to keep their collections of periodicals up to date, Darnton is concerned with the commitment of research library budgets to the high charges to digital collections, originally based on public collections. As a consequence the libraries of the future will have to acquire less books (p.18-19)!

Other structural problems arise out these three central concerns. The instability of information, as defined by Darnton (p.23), requires the possibility of exploring minimal variations in the world of ideas: various copies of the same title - something which can be left aside to allow the digital world be resumed in four shelves - can present revealing dissonances in lettered culture (p.29-31). A historian by profession, the new librarian distrusts the efficiency of the preservation system of digital: temporary materiality - or almost 'immateriality' - of books born in the digital format can be dissipated in the cybernetic space (p.37). Darnton also expands the warning by mentioning the fragility of the registration of communications in the contemporary world (p.53). Its tonic principally falls on the need to discuss public policies for the preservation of collections and the control of the channels for the dissemination of knowledge. This is the reason for which the responsibility of libraries increases in the digital era, not only to keep in mind the ideal of free access to sources of research, but also because they see themselves as responsible for preserving the past of the future. The assumption of all historians is well known: if the present does not leave traces for the future, it can never be the past.

Some of Darnton's concerns about the future are repeated in the second part of the text, in other words in the present. The repetitions of the arguments, though not of the actual examples, marks the reading of this collection of texts which seeks to destroy the myth that the electronic future puts at risk the tradition of printed books (p.67). In order to explore how ink and paper coexist with electronic information technology in the contemporary world (p.77), The Case for Books was launched simultaneously as an e-book and in the traditional format of a printed codex.

In the final chapter, in other words in the part most directly related to the past, Darnton republishes his classic 1982 study of the history of books, available to the Brazilian public for two decades in O beijo de Lamourette. In this text he discusses how the forms of transport and communication decisively influenced the history of literature (p.199). In his recent revision of the 1982 article, Darnton insists on the material character of the object called a book,1 1 Cf. Darnton, Robert. "What is the history of books?" Revisited. Modern Intellectual History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, v.4, Issue 3, p.495-508, 2007. and this insistence is again present in The Case for Books. Familiarized with the world in which news was seen as being tied to a paper format (p.109), Darnton highlights the importance to the historian of material contact with research sources: the color and size of pages, (p.125), even the experience of turning them pages one by one is part of the study of reading practices.

In the same way that Darnton insists on looking for a conciliatory outcome between printed and electronic formats for the past, for the present and the future of books - giving proof that the historian is not just concerned with the past -, I also prefer here to sketch out a conciliatory path between the two professional activities carried out by Robert Darnton, historian of the French Enlightenment and director of Harvard University's library network. I start from the core cause of the divergences - between the past and the future - which challenge the present and through which Darnton seeks to lucidly indicate in The Case for Books, some identities.

The digitalization - and commercialization - project of millions of books, as Darnton discovered in his new office in Harvard, brings to mind the Enlightenment economic and epistemological model, to which The Case for Books offers a skeptical response and a challenge. In the epistemological sphere the Enlightenment model seeks to order and tie together the knowledge of mankind - as D'Alembert proposed in his preliminary discourse in the Encyclopédie in 1751 - or also to bring together the knowledge disseminated around the world, as Diderot suggested in the fifth volume of the same work. Darnton's skepticism comes into action by highlighting gaps and fragilities in projects with a supposedly totalizing nature. In the case of digital collections incomplete pages and the potential absence of variants are clear indications of this fragility.

From the economic point of view the promise of access to compact volumes of written culture is shown again to be a great business. However, what the challenge proposed by Darnton seeks to renew in the twentieth-first century is the terms of the 1700s utopia, according to which the large public digital library will ensure universal access to knowledge. In other words, on the one hand the reflections published in The Case for Books repeat the criticism of the Enlightenment project by lucidly identifying similarities between the market interests of large business of the past and the future, as well as between forms of privilege of access to written culture. On the other hand Darnton seeks to expand the same project which he had studied as a historic phenomenon, to the extent that it relies on the redefinition of mechanisms of universal access to lettered knowledge. In The Case for Books the future of the present is a bet on the failure of the universalism of the past.


  • 1
    Cf. Darnton, Robert. "What is the history of books?" Revisited.
    Modern Intellectual History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, v.4, Issue 3, p.495-508, 2007.
  • Submitted in February 2010.

    Approved in July 2010.

    • 2 Cf. DARNTON, Robert. "What is the history of books?" Revisited. Modern Intellectual History , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, v.4, Issue 3, p.495-508, 2007.

    1 Cf. Darnton, Robert. "What is the history of books?" Revisited. Modern Intellectual History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, v.4, Issue 3, p.495-508, 2007.

    Publication Dates

    • Publication in this collection
      26 May 2011
    • Date of issue
      June 2010
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