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  • A New Digital Library of Alexandria: Mark II June 14, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback

    When Beach was a strapping young man he had heart-felt, thought-out views on everything from abortion to zoophilia. By now in very advanced middle age there are only a couple of things that really get him going: and one of these is the digitalisation of humanity’s books; the possibility, in short, of making all knowledge available to all people. This has become to Beachcombing what a universal cure for cancer was for his parents and grandparents.

    By now humanity should be well on the way to the completion of this task. However, unfortunately the corporation that took on this task, Google, made an  pig’s ear of what they were doing while creating ‘a hegemonic, financially unbeatable, technologically unassailable, and legally invulnerable enterprise that can crush all competition’ (Darnton). Beach has set out his hysterical ravings on this question elsewhere.

    In the last couple of years though the Google project has stalled. Recent legal cases have halted the Google tank as it crashes through the jungle and there are also hints that the Google hierarchy are not as interested as they once were. This is no bad thing as the Google project was misconceived and while it will be useful to have access to Google Books, the creation of a new Library of Alexandria is worth starting from scratch after having learnt from the mistakes of the past.

    The latest players are the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) project, who are about to set off on a digitalisation project of their own. Beach would point any interested readers towards a remarkable essay by Nicholas Carr, who sets out very well the DPLA’s ambitions and the problems and dilemmas they face. Good luck to them…

    As this project begins Beach just wants to set out where he feels Google went wrong and where DPLA could improve things. Any other suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    1) Search for perfection: Google mis-scanned books and fed in inaccurate meta data. With ten percent less scanned something much closer to perfection would have been possible.

    2) Books must be downloadable and searchable: Google  makes it difficult to download books (particularly for those outside the North American internet space): and when books were downloaded they cannot be searched and text cannot be copied out.

    3) Avoid copyright problems (1). Copyright problems are inevitable. Avoid them at the beginning by putting on line only those things that are clearly out of copyright and that will not provoke confrontation in the courts. It would be much better to have all books prior to 1920 and few after than another stalled project.

    4) Avoid copyright problems (2). The DPLA needs to find a jurisdiction, and possibly not the US, where copyright will be less of an issue. Above all, the DPLA should not be afraid to send books into European internet space that break the absurd EU copyright laws for seventy years after an author’s death. Leave it to the individual EU states to ban the site: something that Beachcombing suspects will never happen. Archive.org has never had any problems…

    5) Encourage dispersal of the product. Google made the mistake of trying to control a free product: giving with one hand and taking with another. The DPLA should encourage users to set up private libraries around the web with books re-offered: for example, the Hispanic Studies professor who puts up all nineteenth-century books relating to Galicia and showcases them on his university site.

    Of course, this ain’t going to happen. DPLA will become another failed project, though the chances are that, if it gets off the ground, it will do better than Google.  Perhaps in the end like the universal cure for cancer what we will have is something far more piecemeal and something far more gradual than the panacea once dreamt of. Humanity will take five or six goes at this before it gets the right formula and by then almost any book will be available from one of five or six different sites.


    22 June 2012: John McNulty from Uncertain Times: I understand your feelings about the efforts of Google Books. Seems like such a botch job, a true waste of time and resources. There is even a weblog that exploits the “Art of Google Books”. http://theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com I do agree that the items on The Web Archive, are far superior in quality and they are generally my first source. Being a student of Georgia (USA) history, I feel fortunate  to have found the Digital Library of Georgia but many of their scans are so bad as to be nearly unreadable. But honestly, I’m glad to have access to this material, warts and all. Piecemeal, universities, museums and archives seem to be getting all of this material out there for us, so I think quality will trump, in the long run. I predict that someone will figure out a (relatively) simple and effective way to digitize, display, and store books and papers with intuitive formats that will allow for easy cross-referencing, annotation, and discussion, and we will look back on all of this as the dark days of the crap scan. Then comes KMH:Digitalisation really is a step forward. What could go wrong? It is easy to visualise a sociopathic (actually bibliopathic) individual who reasons that now that everything is digitalised we have no need for the original sources and starts a book-burning crusade that makes the Nazi’s look like school girls at the practice. The next and final step is destruction of all the digitalised content which throws humanity into another dark age. We know hacking is part of the dark side of human nature, so step two isn’t unrealistic. Step one requires only a charismatic figure of the Antichrist type to show us how to be physically free of our unfortunate past (by destroying our cultural legacy of books). Just as we need the seed bank in Norway to help preserve plant species we use for food, we also need a document bank for those fairly rare books and manuscripts which have no hope of surviving the inevitable disasters of the future. Sadly, when it comes to spending money on food or books, the vast majority will always choose food.’ Thanks John and KMH!