Google’s ambition to produce a massive online ‘library’ of digitized books has provoked passionate reactions from the publishing industry, authors, and other groups. In fact, debates over the purpose and possible impact of ‘universal’ libraries are nothing new, and in the past such debates have had a significant impact on the constitution of the information economy itself. I want to draw attention to a particularly consequential conflict, which raged in the years around 1800. As publishing took on its modern form, and with the advent of new printing technologies, Britain’s parliament proposed that copyright law be used to create a universal deposit library. Tying commercial print to the collection of learning would, in its eyes, lead to the climax of Enlightenment. But the project proved unexpectedly controversial. An alliance of poets, antiquarians, naturalists, and publishers fought bitterly against the scheme, arguing on Romantic grounds that it betrayed the very nature of creativity. By collecting the output of an industrial, proprietary publishing sector, it would immortalize mediocrity and demoralize future generations. The outcome of the contest was a critically important change in copyright itself — one that has survived to play a major role in shaping the Google debate, in our own moment of radical change in media and information.
Adrian Johns is a Professor of History at the University of Chicago.