Great libraries are a more than monuments to civilization. They are the repositories of the inspiration and knowledge that make civilizations great. The more they are accessible to the public, the more likely nations are to thrive.

So it would be a good idea to more broadly use the Internet to distribute the knowledge in our libraries to the public.

Recognizing this, Norway, the Netherlands and France are committed to creating digital public repositories combining the resources of all their bricks-and-mortar libraries. The European Union is making plans for an electronic gateway to provide access to all digital library resources on the European continent.

Why should the United States fall behind in this effort?

Now that a federal judge has stopped Google from creating an on-line digital library for profit, American libraries and foundations should seize the chance to create a true nationwide digital public library that would greatly improve access to most books and materials stored in America's libraries.

Led by Professor Roger Darnton, head of the Harvard University Library, a group of scholars at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society is exploring how to create a Digital Public Library of America.

As explained by Prof. Darnton in a series of articles, the DPLA would build on the already extensive digital collections of public and university libraries across the nation.

For example, the University of North Carolina provides Internet access to large parts of its North Carolina collections.

More ambitiously, the Digital Library of South Carolina integrates digital collections at libraries across the state, including public libraries and libraries at institutions of higher learning.

Lest the call for a nationwide digital library be seen as yet another raid on the Federal Treasury, Prof. Darnton of Harvard has called on the nation's leading foundations to put up the funds needed to create a central "reading room" with access to all digital library resources in the United States.

Foundation support was a big factor in the spread of public libraries in America since the late 19th century.

Creation of the Digital Public Library of America would be a notable step forward in keeping with that honorable tradition of public access to knowledge.