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An Infrastructure of Ideas

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Digital Public Library of America Conference, National Archives
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
United States

October 21, 2011

I would like to join this revolutionary throng in thanking David Ferriero and the National Archives for hosting this meeting and make a few observations from NEH’s perspective.

NEH is in the knowledge development and dissemination business. At the heart of our work is concern for the recording of accumulated knowledge of the past and for facilitating research in the future. We are concerned that when many people think of research, they picture laboratories and not libraries. The very concept of research has come to be thought of as exclusively scientific when humanistic understanding has never been more important. We are full bore in support of scientific endeavor, but we also think it critical to prioritize idea exploration and access to the wisdom of the ages.

Half a century ago the English physicist and novelist C. P. Snow delivered a controversial lecture at Cambridge University called “The Two Cultures,” in which he lamented the gulf between scientists and a group he described as “literary intellectuals.” He cited several examples—scientists who had hardly read Dickens and humanists who couldn’t define the second law of thermodynamics.

At the risk of exaggeration, the gulf might be described as illiteracy matching innumeracy in the citadels of academia. But however defined, Snow held that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities hindered solutions to social problems. Assuming some legitimacy to Snow’s contention, what is the situation five decades later?

In many ways the division between the sciences and the humanities is more extreme today, as physics has become more math dependent, biology and chemistry more complex, and scientific inquiries more theoretical. Nevertheless, from a methodological perspective, the technological revolution that began with the digital computer allows the humanities and sciences to share an increasing portion of common ground.

Digitization of a myriad of objects and billions of pages of books and manuscripts enables the application of scientific methods to vast amounts of social science data. Likewise, digital technology and the Internet give scientists an open window into the humanities.

As a consequence, the social hallmark of our times is the emergence of a “New Digital Class”, characterized less by occupation, birth, geographic location, and the science/humanities divide than by an individual’s degree of curiosity, diligence, and access to digital technology.

The important division in the new communications age is no longer the one between science and the humanities. It is in the first instance the growing gulf between those who have crossed the digital divide and those who by choice, lack of access or capacity have not; and in the second, between those who seek information from diverse sources with an open-minded perspective and those who choose to rely on single-dimensioned purveyors of views.

The question of whether a twittering world will cause greater understanding and social integration at the community and international level or lead to greater intolerance and social splintering is yet to be resolved. What is clear is that few revolutions in history can match the democratizing consequences for individual learning of the development and spread of digital communication devices and the software capacities that fuel use of such hardware.

Since the Enlightenment, the issue of equality has been looked upon as a political ideal tied to techniques of social organization and governmental policies of the moment. But in the modern world access to knowledge is becoming as central to advancing social equality and opportunity across the globe as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights.

There have been other revolutions in the democratization of ideas before this one. The development of marks and combinations of letters to represent words, the invention of paper and the printing press, the establishment of schools, especially public schools, of libraries and universities have been seminal stages in human progress. The concept of establishing in the public domain an easily accessible digital repository of a vast conglomeration of written material and created matter appears to be a logical extension of those prior revolutions.

We don’t know precisely how such an institution will be organized, managed, governed, or how it will progress, given the unpredictable imaginative capacity of users and the more mundane, yet thorny, copyright issues that exist. We don’t know what to call the enterprise, whether it will remain a mouthful like “National Digital Library” or acquire a short-hand moniker such as “DI-LAB” or “NAT-LIB.” We don’t even know how the cost burden of the effort will be shared between corporations, the non-profit community and governmental bodies—though two thoughtful commitments from the philanthropic community, one coming from across the sea--perhaps inspired by James Smithson, the British benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution-- will follow my presentation.

What we do know is that whatever the cost, collective storage is far cheaper, and design with collective input is likely to be more robust and consistent than localized efforts using diverse standards and methodologies.

Wednesday evening at the White House we unrolled before a gathering of law students a documentary the NEH financed called “Freedom Riders” that has recently won three Emmys. After showing the film about young civil rights pioneers who were beaten and imprisoned in 1961for standing up to Jim Crow laws in Dixie, the audience was given the chance to interview several who led and participated in the civil disobedience. Diane Nash, the chief organizer of the rides when a student at Fisk University, was asked what she and the others thought they would achieve when they started out. Her response was instructive. She said they really didn’t know. All they did know was that it was the right thing to do.

I feel a little bit the same way about what Bob Darnton, John Palfrey, Jim Billington and all of you assembled today are so committed to achieving. Despite not knowing exactly what to expect, facilitating this revolutionary advance in the democratization of ideas may be the greatest no-brainer policy option this great center of democracy is confronted with at this fractious time in our politics. Just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas.