Digital Books, Layperson’s Summary

The New York Times Sunday Magazine had an article with the title Scan This Book! that one could consider to be the best (latest) summary of the race to digitally scan and serve up books. This is an article I could give my mother (Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!) that would help explain what I do and why I do it. The article describes the Google and Open Content Alliance projects, of course, but it also listed several others that I hadn’t heard of before, including a project at Stanford University that is separate from the Google-run effort, an effort by a Chinese firm with 1.2 million books so far on its way to scanning every title in 900 universities in China, and the Million Book Project from Carnegie Mellon University. (It didn’t mention the International Children’s Digital Library, though, — one of my favorites.)

The article goes on to talk about the benefits (and drawbacks) of digital book services. The opportunity for greater connectivity between works (and between users reading the works) is a definite benefit. The lack of readers that mimic the usability of a paperback is a definite drawback. Then it gets to the good part:

So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas? Four things: First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now. … Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. Third, the universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present, multilingual — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know. …

Finally, the full, complete universal library of all works becomes more than just a better Ask Jeeves. Search on the Web becomes a new infrastructure for entirely new functions and services.

Search on the Web becomes a new infrastructure for entirely new functions and services. The author goes on in section 8 of the article (with the title “Search Changes Everything”):

The search-engine companies, including Google, operate in the new regime. … What search uncovers is not just keywords but also the inherent value of connection. … Things can be found by search only if they radiate potential connections. … Search opens up creations. It promotes the civic nature of publishing. Having searchable works is good for culture. …

This section focuses a great deal on the legality and moral imperatives of balancing copyright with what the author calls “an obligation to allow that work to be searched”. I don’t think the excerpted parts above take the author’s words too far out of context, but it serves as a good summary of the library profession’s new marching orders. Why can’t we add “and your local library” along with Google as the search-engine provider? “Civic nature”…”good for culture”…isn’t that part of our role as not-for-profit libraries working for the public good?

(By the way, I love Google. They have a wonderful product, great vision, and an astounding collective work ethic. I’m grateful their offer of money and human resources in support of the Google Summer of Code project, but I can’t help remembering that they are a for-profit company that is now ultimately responsible to

(This post was updated on 06-Nov-2012.)