The Evolution of the Library: a Tool of Development

November 12, 2005

Soon we'll have far fewer excuses for not distributing the worlds most valuable information resources: libraries. What will it take for us to start reorganizing and exporting our libraries digitally for the sake of global education?

The good news is that, on several fronts, there are efforts underway to digitize published content on a massive scale. This will reduce distribution costs to virtually nothing. These efforts were begun recently by Google but are now being undertaken by Yahoo! and, perhaps more notably, Microsoft. The next step, however, is to get over the of this content, and there remain numerous obstacles to this goal.

Currently it is clear that the central obstacle is our regressive form of copyright law, which "protects" the ownership of information for deeply flawed reasons.

The summary effect of these copyright laws to prevent the free distribution of information.

If the railroad tycoons of an earlier U.S.A. hadn't been around to create the library system from the spoils of their industry, for example, the U.S.A. would have a major hole in its educational system. I think the same principle applies here: the capacity to educate the world exists, and the potential is real. What's holding things back is a flawed profit model that hordes information needlessly.

Get this: The principle of copyright law in the words of the University of Michigan's head librarian, a "balancing act between the limited rights of the author and the rights of the public." Those are strong words, and I think they are well said. On the occasion of being sued for scanning books with Google print, which has just launched a new search feature, this librarian wrote:

"We continue to be enthusiastic about our partnership with Google, and we are confident that this project complies with copyright law. The overarching purpose of copyright law is to promote progress in society.


"[The digitizing of books] is a tremendously important public policy discussion. In the future, most research and learning is going to take place in a digital world. Material that does not exist in digital form will effectively disappear. We need to decide whether we are going to allow the development of new technology to be used as a tool to restrict the public's access to knowledge, or if we are going to ensure that people can find these works and that they will be preserved for future generations."

If digitizing books is becoming essential to preserving them, then we are getting that much closer to a world where the highest quality information (as opposed to the internet, which is a at best a chaotic database), is reproducible for free: what a wonderful thing. Now we just have to get over out 200-year-old copyright model and recognize a broader, public use for information. The library-building tycoons of the 19th century did it, so why can't we?

This line of thinking fits well into into the general digitization of books, which is becoming a reality, as is indicated by Microsoft's entrance this week into the book-scanning foray pioneered by Google earlier this year:

After Google redefined the search of printed books, and Yahoo entered the lists, Microsoft is now planning on launching its own book scanning project. Microsoft announced that it will partner with the Open Content Alliance, scanning public domain texts.

(via Research Buzz )

On a related note, there are several new technologies that are helping folks do interesting, though apparently not extremely useful things with their books, videos, cds and other real-world media. Perhapos these will play a role in the redistibution of the worlds information gold mines.

Library Thing, a new bit of software, for example, allows users to easily catalogue their books like so:

"Registration is simple - give it a username and a password. No other personal information is requested. Adding books is just as easy. So many people are using Library Thing (they recently accounced they had 1 million tags) now that a simple search on an author or title will most likely pull the book up, which can be added to your catalog with a single click. You can also input ISBNs if you like. Quickly add tags, a rating and a review if you like. It’s fast and easy to add books and metadata." (Found on:TechCrunch.)

There are some other sites that do similar things, and there are some related gadget features, like using your Apple iSight camera to scan barcodes and get your entire library in the time it would take to scan a few loads of groceries. As a personal process, this sounds a little gimmicky to me, and I doubt that there will really be a lasting impact to this line of thinking as a "product." Perhaps that's incorrect — I haven't tried it and I'm not much of a tagger in general.

But I do really like the idea of tagging books and sharing tag libraries — creating, essentially, evolutionary indexes to books that could help people make more sense of the things that they are reading. If people are sharing their tags about their books, then we could have massive, elaborate networks of metadata about our printed works in precisely the same way that so many people are now doing en masse with online content. (A la technorati and et al.)

What I'm imagining is a kind of for libraries, in which patrons using the "card catalogue" are encouraged to add their own notes about books. This is not an unrealistic web app — you'd just build something into the existing library website. You link a few dozen websites (let the librarians sandardize it, they'll have a blast, and librarians will all be web developers in 15 years) and in short order you've got rich, evolving, user-contributed data about your stacks. So much the better for a world awash in data: could log in search my library, find a relevant book, then get rich suggestions about related books from the tags.