Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Universal Library

Thanks to my sister for sending me the link to Scan This Book!, a New York Times Magazine article by Kevin Kelly. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it. The article both excited and scared me. First the exciting part. Imagine having access to a Universal Library that contains every book, every song, every work of art ever created. Now imagine the Universal Library not as static PDF files, but as dynamic pages:

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs have written and cross-referenced an entire online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Buoyed by this success, many nerds believe that a billion readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans for fans.
And it doesn't stop there:
Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.
That is pretty cool in and of itself. Think of how delightfully lost you could get reading Shakespeare. That is reading on a personal level. Now imagine what can be done with all the tags and bookmarks:
When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.
Granted, there will be lots of worthless junk, marginalia like "dumb" or "funny" are useless. But what about good marginalia? The kind that argues with the text or offers deeper insight? I can imagine marginalia on marginalia, an entire virtual conversation bigger than a blog but also complimentary. The idea of the Universal Library reminds me a bit about a device in Cloud Atlas, the sony. In case you haven't read the book, a sony is a handheld device on which you can access everything--books, news, music--you name it. But at the same time I think of this, I also worry about censorship and access, a problem even in the analog world. Digitize everything and access is granted to those who can afford it. And blanket censorship becomes easier. Your device is registered in China? You are not allowed to see anything that questions the official government line. Your device is registered in the United States? You are not allowed to access anything that is published by a country or group the government decides has ties to terrorism. It can be done. It is being done already. And of course there are also copyright issues that need to be solved. Kelly sees the argument as a war between business models--the old copyright method where it is the copy that is valuable vs. the new where it is the text that has value. I can see his point. I think part of what is making the old vs the new more challenging is that no one has really figured out how the new way is going to make money. How are publishers going to be paid for the work they do? Will they disappear? How are artists going to earn a living for their work when it is scanned and free for everyone? Various methods are being attempted, but nothing is settled. So the publishers dig in their heels and authors cry foul. And I don't think the solutions are as simple as Kelly makes them seem:
Search opens up creations. It promotes the civic nature of publishing. Having searchable works is good for culture. It is so good, in fact, that we can now state a new covenant: Copyrights must be counterbalanced by copyduties. In exchange for public protection of a work's copies (what we call copyright), a creator has an obligation to allow that work to be searched. No search, no copyright. As a song, movie, novel or poem is searched, the potential connections it radiates seep into society in a much deeper way than the simple publication of a duplicated copy ever could.
Making copyright hinge on allowing a work's digitization is rather drastic and verges on draconian in my opinion. I'm sure there is a solution somewhere, it's finding it that will be painful. Kelly's optimism about digitization is infectious. But when he declares the paper book will eventually go away, that's going too far. Maybe it will go away someday as each successive generation becomes more and more comfortable reading on screen. But I hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime. I am analog enough (or maybe just paranoid) that I worry about what would happen if the the internet was destroyed whether by people or sun spots or simply our own hubris. What if I have no electricity to run my reading device? It all becomes useless and my digital library is unreadable. What then? I cannot conceive of a time when paper libraries do not exist and I don't want to.