Some Basic Facts about the Berkman Center

A new group of (utterly wonderful) interns has arrived at the Berkman Center, asking lots of questions about what the place is about.  I met with a big group of them, working on a few projects I’m involved with, this afternoon.  There’s also a reporter who has been working on a story about the Center, who has asked a lot of basic questions about what we do and how we fund our work.  I thought I’d set out some basic facts about the Berkman Center here in a blog post, in case anyone’s interested.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society was founded in the 1997-1998 academic year at Harvard Law School by Prof. Charles Nesson and co-founder Prof. Jonathan Zittrain.  Their vision was complemented by, and supported by, a generous gift from the Berkman family.  This gift provided both funding for a chair at Harvard Law School for a professor (which has been held by Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and presently by Yochai Benkler) and for the seed funding for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.  The Center had a few students back then, now-famous Internet scholar Wendy Seltzer and lawyer Alex Macgillivray.  Wendy refers often to the early days of the Berkman Center as “smart people in a hallway.”  It was not glamorous.  It was a hallway in Pound Hall at HLS where most of us students (I was one, in the late nineties as well) toiled at workstations on JZ’s and Charlie’s inventive projects.  In the early days, the Center’s budget was up to and occasionally a bit over $1 million per year.  It had a small professional staff and a deeply devoted, and growing, group of students engaged in it.  That was the era when I fell in love with the subject and the place.  It felt serious, important, and engaged in an exploding topic.

The Center has grown since then in many respects, but it retains much of its original flavor — much of its original start-up feel.  We are, twelve or thirteen years later, no longer in a hallway, but now in slightly larger digs, the second floor of a yellow, wood-frame house on the north edge of the HLS campus.  It’s about 2,300 square feet, with some offices housing four, five, or six people at a time.  During intern season, there are often a dozen or more students camped in the conference room and/or the kitchen.  We still feed the crew a lot of pizza and sandwiches: every Tuesday, for our lunch series, at a minimum, and often more frequently than that when we have other guests.  That’s part of the charm: students, staff, fellows, and faculty all come to the Center for the ideas, the camaraderie, the hard work, and occasionally the refreshments.  Myles Berkman, who has been our biggest supporter, described his vision for the Center as a “water-cooler” around which interested students and researchers might gather to work on the most important issues of our times.  We’ve taken that charge seriously.

The growth of the Center has changed a few things.  There are many more paid staff, which is terrific; our reach is increased as a result.  It was once a few staff; it is today more like 30.  The fellows program — in many respects the heart and soul of the institution — has grown from a few to as many as 50 in the newly-announced class for the coming year.  The faculty has grown.  Our clinic has grown in size and sophistication, and is led by Prof. Phil Malone and his extraordinary group of lawyers and teachers.  As many as 150 students grace us with their presence and involvement each year.  Our reach, today, is more international than ever, a charge led by our quite brilliant and wonderful executive director, Urs Gasser, who was formerly a law professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Our funding, too, has grown and diversified.  Initially, it was pretty much just the Berkman family.  Recently, the Center’s budget has grown to between $4 million and $5 million per year.  The funders come from a broad range, including individuals, foundations, governments, and corporations.  We disclose all donors on a web page which the staff keeps up-to-date.  We don’t take any sponsored research.  But if we allocate an unrestricted gift from a corporation to our work on a given project or event, then we disclose this gift as associated with a project (see the ISTTF page, or our Interop work, or our Digital Youth work, each of which have benefited from funds from various supporters).

Some things have not changed as the Center has grown, which is deeply important.  The Center is still a place where people who work there are deeply devoted to a common mission — a mission that has not changed since our inception, dreamed up by JZ and Charlie and just as compelling today as it was when the Center was founded.  It’s a place where understanding the truth is the primary object, whether through teaching, research, or exploration of cyberspace.  We work hard and enjoy one another’s company, challenging ideas, and devotion to our shared inquiries.  It is a serious, fun, compelling place to work, and I’m grateful every day that I’m associated with it.

Interns, I hope you have a great summer — and may you have as hard a time leaving it as I have.

There’s enormous promise in the Open Library project, which we’re hearing about today at Berkman’s lunch event from Aaron Swartz. The idea is wonderfully simple: to create a single web page per book. That web page can aggregate lots of data and metadata about each book. In turn, the database can be structured to indicate very interesting relationships between books, ideas, and people. The public presentation of the information is via a structured wiki.

I’m most interested in hearing what Open Library thinks it needs in the way of help. They have a cool demo here. It seems to me that one way to succeed in this project is to combine what start-ups call “business development” with what scholars do for a living with what non-profits think of as crowd-sourcing or encouraging user generated content or whatever. There’s a lot that could be done if the publishers and libraries contributed the core data (should be in everyone’s interest, long-term anyway); scholars need to opt in an do their part in an open way; Open Library needs to get the data structured and rendered right (curious as to whether OPML or other syndicated data structures are in play, or could be in play, here); and human beings need to contribute, contribute, contribute as they have to Wikipedia and other web 2.0 megasites.

A note from a participant: “libraries resist user-generated cataloguing.” This seems to me a cultural issue that is worth exploring. We do need to balance the authority of librarians in with what the crowds have to offer. But I’m pretty sure it’s not an either-or choice, as David Weinberger makes clear through his work.

One thing that makes a lot of sense is their plan for supporting the site over time. The combination of philanthropy (at least as start-up funds, if not for special projects over time) plus revenue generated through affiliate links over time makes a lot of sense as a sustainable business plan.

One could also see linkages between Open Library and 1) our H2O Playlists initiative (hat-tip to JZ) to allow people to share their reading lists as well as 2) what Gene Koo and John Mayer at CALI are doing with the eLangdell project.

It’s not a surprise that the truly wonderful David Weinberger — I can see him blogging this in front of me — brought Aaron here today to talk about this.

Where I’m left, at the end of lunch, is with a sense of wonder about what we (broadly, collectively) can accomplish with these technologies, a bit of leadership, a bit of capital, good communications strategies, and some good luck in the public interest over time. It’s awe-inspiring.