This library at Exeter University will soon be obsolete. They’ll keep the books because paper is so durable, but the most important functions of the collection will soon be achievable only when the texts have been scanned and linked together as part of the one great library of humankind. What’s happening is that the words are leaking out of the bindings and forming a great sloshing liquid body interacting with living minds. Wow, what an accomplishment!
The most exciting thing I’ve read all year is Kevin Kelly’s article, “Scan this Book!” in the New York Times Magazine of May 14, 2006. I’ve just re-read it. Kelly’s facts and argument are too complex to recap here, so the best favor I can do you is to urge you to go have a look at it.
Still, there are some highlights I can pass on to you in my own language. The biggest insight is that cultural producers are now paid for their work in terms of the access that consumers have to copies of their work. As the term copyright" suggests, if you want to read or refer to another person’s book, you have to pay for the right to do so, except for small passages that are limited by rules of “fair use.”
This system has worked well in an age of mass production where copies of an original work can be printed cheaply – as also are copies of musical productions and movies on tape or vinyl records. Cheap is good. Cheap copies have enabled ordinary people to listen to Mozart, whereas the workers of Mozart’s own day could not have heard concerts or operas more than a few times in a lifetime, if that.
But now things have become better than cheap; they’ve become free. Digitizing a book makes it possible to do things to it that could never happen to a particular copy. For one thing, you can disseminate it to countless other readers, like spam. You can clip out portions and weave them into other texts that you’re creating or assembling from other snipped passages.
But an even more remarkable thing is the capacity for searching the digitized text. Sometimes I need to locate a passage or a reference from my own new book, which I spent eight years writing only recently. You’d think I’d know everything about it, but I don’t. Instead of thumbing through the index (which is pretty good because it made it myself, but still not good enough) I go to the computer and find the final version of the manuscript. With the search function I can locate the passages I need far more quickly than with a real book. Then I can copy that passage and paste it into the new article I’m writing, maybe tweaking it a bit to avoid reptitiveness.
What Kelly points out is that we’re going to have one giant digitized library pretty soon, to which everyone on earth will have immediate access, possibly in our pockets, or clipped onto our shirts, as this iPod that I’m listening to now. It’s coming, folks! Corporations and libraries are scanning about one million books a year, from the 32 million books that have been “published” since the Sumerians started the whole thing with their clay tablets and are now cataloged. To be sure, there are some missing volumes; the library at Alexandria burned and can never be replaced. But what of the extant books?
Ten percent are still in print. Another fifteen percent in the public domain. Nobody owns the rights to them, so it’s okay to scan them and pour them into the “one big book.” But 75 percent of the world’s books are “orphaned.” Copies of them do exist in libraries, but they are not in the public domain so it’s legally tricky to scan them and make them available for searching. Google has been scanning libraries with the intention of including every volume, without clearing the copyright permissions first. The general plan was to let authors come to them and complain after the books were scanned, if they had and claims to make, because it’s so hard to trace down ownership of books. (It certainly is! I hired an assistant for many hours to find out who owned certain books that I wanted to quote, and obtain the permissions for my own publication.)
Kelly says that publishers are objecting to Google’s plan and mounting a legal case against the project. But never mind. It will happen anyhow. If Google can’t do it, ordinary people will scan books themselves and make them available on-line. Nobody can stop technology.
I often lament the fact that technology has a dynamic of its own that cannot be limited. At least, it’s hard to keep weapons from being built if they are technologically feasible (and even if they aren’t, as in the case of Star Wars defences). But in this case I rejoice. Thank God nobody can stop it. That will be one fabulous achievement – the creation of this one great book in the sky, the whole corpus of human thought. And my own books will be part of it. It’s sort of reassuring, like the recognition that when I’m dead, my molecules will be recycled as part of somebody else. You toss your book into the pot and stir, and you get a marvelous stew, hallelujah.