Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The New Library of Alexandria

Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, the largest library in the world was the Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt. Legend has it that all of the world's knowledge--perhaps as many as 700,000 parchment scrolls--was stored within the Library's walls.

According to one story quoted in Wikipedia, "By decree of Ptolemy III of Egypt, all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls in their possession; these writings were then swiftly copied by official scribes. The originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the previous owners."

Talk about copyright infringement.

Today, over fifteen hundred years after the Library's destruction, Google's stated mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." A modern version of the Library at Alexandria?

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and inventor of the first electronic publishing system, talked about the creation of a digital library in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle. He was quoted saying, "If we do this right, it will be remembered as one of the great things humans have done, up there with the Library of Alexandria, Gutenberg's press and putting a man on the moon."

Kahle is the driving force behind the OCA (Open Content Alliance) which I wrote about for the first time on November 6 in a blog entitled "Another Team Is Suiting Up." Seven weeks ago, the OCA announced its intention to begin digitizing books in the public domain. In doing so, it differentiates itself from Google, which intends to digitize all books in the collections of its five partner libraries--including those still under copyright.

Among the OCA's founding members are: The Internet Archive, Yahoo!, Adobe Systems, the European Archive, HP Labs, the British National Archives, O'Reilly Media and the Prelinger Archives. During their kick-off event in San Francisco on October 27, additional members were announced, including Microsoft. The Smithsonian and Johns Hopkins University have also agreed to participate.

Kahle described his long-time dream of providing "'a permanent archive of digital work . . . available for free to scholars and researchers.'" To this end, he started the nonprofit Internet Archive in 1996. "'My interest is to build the great library. That was the goal I set for myself 25 years ago. It is now technically possible to live up to the dream of the Library of Alexandria.'"

According to Kahle, he met with Yahoo early this year to discuss potential joint ventures between the nonprofit and commercial sectors. "Yahoo proposed creating a freely accessible digital library that would include only books in the public domain . . . It was agreed that Yahoo would supply the search engine for the Web site and index the books scanned by the Internet Archive's Scribe machines."

Kahle is anxious for Google to join the OCA team. While it's a nice dream, I have difficulty seeing Google joining an effort where Yahoo is providing the search engine and in which Microsoft is a participant. But, hey, we're entering the season of miracles. Maybe the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard [will] lie down with the kid.


David Garcea said...

I never made the comparison between what Google is doing (and what several others have tried to do) and the Library at Alexendria, which I have always found fascinating. So thank you for putting it in this light.

If Google does achieve this, it would be a great achievement for mankind. However, I'm afraid it will be inevitable for this archive to be lost as well. Digital information is fragile, and incorporeal.

The main issue would be that it is solely controlled by Google. Therefore anything that happens to Google could be the downfall of the archive. Then there are problems with keeping the database accessible. Then there are the cataclysmic problems, like what happens if we no longer have electricity. The archive certainly won't outlast our civilization, when it comes to an end, because chances our future civilizations will have no idea how to assemble, power, or use our computers.

If someone found the Library at Alexendria today, after thousands of years of being lost, most of the information would be easily understood, unknown languages may take a couple decades to decipher, but overall it wouldn't be a problem. In contrast, try using a twenty year old computer.

Maya said...

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post, David.

I agree with your concern regarding sole ownership of the "digital library." The OCA alliance is less proprietary than Google and more in line with an open source approach. At the same time, it's inevitable that these initiatives end up in court (and probably the Supreme Court). The fact that Google is the entity being sued while the OCA copies the public domain works will permit this effort to proceed on two fronts.