Scan this Book!

May 15th, 2006 by Ross Scaife

Kevin Kelly, Scan This Book! New York Times, May 14, 2006:

For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding further into the infinite future. Until now. When Google announced in December 2004 that it would digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make their contents searchable, the promise of a universal library was resurrected….Brewster Kahle, an archivist overseeing another scanning project, says that the universal library is now within reach. “This is our chance to one-up the Greeks!” he shouts. “It is really possible with the technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon.” And unlike the libraries of old, which were restricted to the elite, this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person….Ideally, in such a complete library we should also be able to [go beyond books and] read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine or journal. And why stop there?…

From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have “published” at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn’t plug directly into your brain with thin white cords….

Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before….Buoyed by [the] success [of Wikipedia], 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….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….

Science is on a long-term campaign to bring all knowledge in the world into one vast, interconnected, footnoted, peer-reviewed web of facts. Independent facts, even those that make sense in their own world, are of little value to science. (The pseudo- and parasciences are nothing less, in fact, than small pools of knowledge that are not connected to the large network of science.) In this way, every new observation or bit of data brought into the web of science enhances the value of all other data points. In science, there is a natural duty to make what is known searchable. No one argues that scientists should be paid when someone finds or duplicates their results. Instead, we have devised other ways to compensate them for their vital work. They are rewarded for the degree that their work is cited, shared, linked and connected in their publications, which they do not own….To a large degree, they make their living by giving away copies of their intellectual property in one fashion or another.

(hat tip, Peter Suber)

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