Robert Darnton

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once explained that "access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations." In this modern era of academic specialization, the role of broad-minded thinkers committed to the pursuit of new knowledge for its most elemental value has become all the more rare and all the more necessary. And you have been among our greatest champions in this cause. Though you attended Andover on a scholarship, graduated from Harvard magna cum laude, and were awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where you studied for your Ph.D., the full flower of your academic career would have to wait until you first completed a stint as a crime reporter, attracted to journalism in part by your father Byron's career as a celebrated war correspondent for The New York Times. When, in your spare time in the reporters' bullpen at police headquarters, you found yourself more interested in reading Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy than the day's police blotter, it was time to return for good to higher education. History was your true calling, and you found your home at Princeton University, where you were a member of the faculty for almost forty years and became the foremost historian of learning's main repository: the book. Your leadership in this field has spanned the dawn of the Internet age and come at a portentous moment for teaching and learning. The post of University Librarian at Harvard, home to the largest private library system in the world, has always carried special responsibilities. But only during your tenure did it involve, for example, issuing a warning about the dangers of commercializing information in response to Google's proposal to own the world's books. Your efforts to navigate the impact of the digital age on both the existing storehouse of knowledge and new research findings led to the creation of the Digital Public Library of America, accessible to people in almost every country on earth. You also championed Harvard’s creation of an open access digital repository for peer-reviewed literature, helping to revolutionize the way academics share their work. Who would expect that this devotee of the digital frontier was once a young scholar who took such pleasure in traveling to Switzerland and France for the opportunity to physically sift through rich source material –thousands upon thousands of documents describing the lives and times of established printers and publishers, as well as the shadier world of smugglers, rebels, and profligates who traded in the written word. No one has understood the unique learning made possible by the book more entirely, defended it more fiercely, or accomplished more to secure its future, than you. For preserving access to the knowledge on which civilization depends, Columbia is proud to present you with the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.