Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why It Ain't The Library of Alexandria

Thanks to Publishers Marketplace for drawing my attention to a very interesting article dated November 5, 2007 in The New Yorker titled "Future Reading: Digitization and Its Discontents."

The article is written by Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton University. Wikipedia refers to his "preoccupation with the relations between scholarship and science," which is an excellent way to describe The New Yorker piece.

Grafton discusses the various digitization initiatives by Google, Microsoft, Amazon and the Open Content Alliance from the perspective of an historian whose world view encompasses far more than the five hundred years since books became widely available as the result of Gutenberg's press.

Almost two years ago, on November 23, 2005, I did a post here comparing Google and the Open Content Alliance's efforts to copy the world's books to the famous 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.

Grafton also makes reference to that fabled library when he says, "The greatest and most famous of the ancient collections, the Library of Alexandria, had, in its ambitions and its methods, a good deal in common with Google’s book projects."

But he sneers at that ambition, saying "In fact, the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind."

Why? Because these copying initiatives cannot possibly touch all of the information stored around the world in archives and obscure libraries. As Grafton points out, "Google, for example, has no immediate plans to scan books from the first couple of centuries of printing. Rare books require expensive special conditions for copying, and most of those likely to generate a lot of use have already been made available by companies like Chadwyck-Healey and Gale, which sell their collections to libraries and universities for substantial fees."

The comment that Grafton made which had the most impact on me, however, was this:

Other sectors of the world’s book production are not even catalogued and accessible on site, much less available for digitization. The materials from the poorest societies may not attract companies that rely on subscriptions or on advertising for cash flow. This is unfortunate, because these very societies have the least access to printed books and thus to their own literature and history. . .Sixty million Britons have a hundred and sixteen million public-library books at their disposal, while more than 1.1 billion Indians have only thirty-six million. Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food. The Internet will do much to redress this imbalance, by providing Western books for non-Western readers. What it will do for non-Western books is less clear.

That quote is a harsh reminder that we Westerners tend to think in terms of our own history and accomplishments, discounting the experience of much of the world's peoples.

It would be a mistake to forget that Google's scanning initiative is not a philanthropic quest. Just six days ago, I quoted The New York Times here, saying "Libraries that agree to work with Google must agree to a set of terms, which include making the material unavailable to other commercial search services."

Google is, first and foremost, a commercial venture. While it is scanning books for free, it does so in order to increase the value of its own search engine. In exchange for providing free digital copies to libraries, it demands that those institutions not open their doors to Google's competitors in the search engine business.

While I understand Google's position from a business standpoint, it dulls the sheen on their company motto: "Don't be evil." It's also a reminder that no matter how friendly the huckster at the door is, we need to always read the small print in the contract he offers.

I highly recommend reading the Grafton article. He reminds us in great detail of the many obscure places where the world's information is stored.

He also has the historian's preference for working with the original document. I was amused by his reminder that "[o]riginal documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can." He points to a story in which "a fellow-historian systematically sniff[ed] two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks."

Read the entire article here.


Katie said...

Very, very interesting, Maya! Thanks for sharing!

Maya Reynolds said...

Katie: Thanks for stopping by.