Sunday, May 14, 2006

Will Everything be on the Web?

Today's New York Times Magazine has a fascinating essay on the Google digitzation project and its implications:

The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages. It is a familiar hope, in part because long ago we briefly built such a library. The great library at Alexandria, constructed around 300 B.C., was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in the known world. At one time or another, the library held about half a million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 and 70 percent of all books in existence then. But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed. Since then, the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to contain it. 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. Indeed, the explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing to everything in one decade, has encouraged us to believe in the impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?

I, for one, am all in favor of anything that heightens the visibility of libraries and makes our collections more accessible to users. However, there are several major obstacles to such a "library of all knowledge". One is the status of copyrighted items. Can they be digitized and, if so, who would have access to them? Also, the usability issue is another major concern. I am still not sold on the idea of reading an entire text online. It's nice to have it available there, but no e-book comes close to being as user-friendly as the hardcopy book.


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