Open access as a public good: “He who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

This “hat tip” goes to the Spring 2012 issue of JISC Inform for covering the January 17, 2012 JISC/SCONUL Lecture in London presented by Professor Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library. Professor Darnton’s lecture was entitled, “The Digital Public Library of America: Current Plans and Future Prospects.”

Darnton spoke on the Digital Public Library of America, an ambitious project that will seek to create a national digital library, bringing together the world’s cultural and scientific record and making it freely accessible to all. In the lecture, Darnton speaks passionately about open access, and coming to view knowledge as a public good.

To set the stage, Darnton references a well-known letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to an Isaac McPherson on August 13, 1813. “Jefferson developed a metaphor,” says Darnton, “which is a description of the way intellectual communication takes place—it’s a process of spreading light from one taper, or candle, to another.” He quotes the following excerpt:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

“Well,” continues Darnton, “Jefferson wasn’t exactly thinking of the Internet. But I think that is the message, and I would add to it open access—free access for humanity to the collective good of humanity.”

A bit later, Darnton again comes back to Jefferson’s metaphor to speak about how the Internet facilitates information access—exactly what I thought of as I was listening to him reading Jefferson’s words. “To get back to the idea of Jefferson’s candle-light power, enlightenment, it may seem archaic today of course, but I believe it can acquire a twenty-first century luster if you associate it with the Internet. The Internet which multiplies messages at virtually no cost.”

I have embedded Darnton’s lecture (just over an hour in length) here. It is well worth a viewing.

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Posted in "The Hat Tip", Abstracting & Indexing, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Libraries & OA, OA Policies, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Journals
One comment on “Open access as a public good: “He who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
  1. […] this is not just a cynical ploy to negotiate a better deal with publishers, which I cannot believe hearing the passion of Professor Robert Darnton, this may very well become a catalyst for fundamental change in scholarly communication. It may […]

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