[Paleopsych] Technology Review: The Infinite Library

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Fri Apr 15 20:23:47 UTC 2005

The Infinite Library

    By Wade Roush May 2005

    The Bodleian Library at the University of
    Oxford in England is the only place you are likely to find an Ethernet
    port that looks like a book. Built into the ancient bookcases
    dominating the oldest wing of the 402-year-old library, the brown
    plastic ports share shelf space with handwritten catalogues of the
    university's medieval manuscripts and other materials. Some of the
    volumes are still chained to the shelves, a 17th-century innovation
    designed to discourage borrowing. But thanks to the Ethernet ports and
    the university's effort to digitize irreplaceable books like the
    catalogues--which often contain the only clue to locating an obscure
    book or manuscript elsewhere in the vast library--users of the
    Bodleian don't even need to take the books off the shelves. They can
    simply plug in their laptops, connect to the Internet, and view the
    pertinent pages online. In fact, anyone with a Web browser can read
    the catalogues, a privilege once restricted to those fortunate enough
    to be teaching or studying at Oxford.

    The digitization of the world's enormous store of library books--an
    effort dating to the early 1990s in the United Kingdom, the United
    States, and elsewhere--has been a slow, expensive, and underfunded
    process. But last December librarians received a pleasant shock.
    Search-engine giant Google announced ambitious plans to expand its
    "Google Print" service by converting the full text of millions of
    library books into searchable Web pages. At the time of the
    announcement, Google had already signed up five partners, including
    the libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of
    Michigan, along with the New York Public Library. More are sure to

    Most librarians and archivists are ecstatic about the announcement,
    saying it will likely be remembered as the moment in history when
    society finally got serious about making knowledge ubiquitous.
    Brewster Kahle, founder of a nonprofit digital library known as the
    Internet Archive, calls Google's move "huge....It legitimizes the
    whole idea of doing large-volume digitization."

    But some of the same people, including Kahle, believe Google's efforts
    and others like it will force libraries and librarians to reëxamine
    their core principles--including their commitment to spreading
    knowledge freely. Letting a for-profit organization like Google
    mediate access to library books, after all, could either open up
    long-hidden reserves of human wisdom or constitute the first step
    toward the privatization of the world's literary heritage. "You'd
    think that if libraries are serious about providing access to
    high-quality material, the idea of somebody digitizing that stuff very
    quickly--well, what's not to like?" says Abby Smith, director of
    programs for the Council on Library and Information Resources, a
    Washington, DC, nonprofit that helps libraries manage digital
    transformation. "But some librarians are very concerned about the
    terms of access and are very concerned that a commercial entity will
    have control over materials that libraries have collected."

    They're also concerned about the book business itself. Publishers and
    authors count on strict copyright laws to prevent copying and reuse of
    their intellectual property until after they've recouped their
    investments. But libraries, which allow many readers to use the same
    book, have always enjoyed something of an exemption from copyright
    law. Now the mass digitization of library books threatens to make
    their content just as portable--or piracy prone, depending on one's
    point of view--as digital music. And that directly involves libraries
    in the clash between big media companies and those who would like all
    information to be free--or at least as cheap as possible.

    Whatever happens, transforming millions more books into bits is sure
    to change the habits of library patrons. What, then, will become of
    libraries themselves? Once the knowledge now trapped on the printed
    page moves onto the Web, where people can retrieve it from their
    homes, offices, and dorm rooms, libraries could turn into lonely
    caverns inhabited mainly by preservationists. Checking out a library
    book could become as anachronistic as using a pay phone, visiting a
    travel agent to book a flight, or sending a handwritten letter by

    Surprisingly, however, most backers of library digitization expect
    exactly the opposite effect. They point out that libraries in the
    United States are gaining users, despite the advent of the Web, and
    that libraries are being constructed or renovated at an unprecedented
    rate (architect Rem Koolhaas's Seattle Central Library, for example,
    is the new jewel of that city's downtown). And they predict that
    21st-century citizens will head to their local libraries in even
    greater numbers, whether to use their free Internet terminals, consult
    reference specialists, or find physical copies of copyrighted books.
    (Under the Google model, only snippets from these books will be
    viewable on the Web, unless their authors and publishers agree
    otherwise.) And considering that the flood of new digital material
    will make the job of classifying, cataloguing, and guiding readers to
    the right texts even more demanding, librarians could become busier
    than ever.

    "I chafe at the presumption that once you digitize, there is nothing
    left to do," says Donald Waters, a former director of the Digital
    Library Federation who now oversees the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's
    extensive philanthropic investments in projects to enhance scholarly
    communication. "There is an enormous amount to do, and digitizing is
    just scratching the surface."

    Digitization itself, of course, is no small challenge. Scanning the
    pages of brittle old books at high speed without damaging them is a
    problem that's still being addressed, as is the question of how to
    store and preserve their content once it's in digital form. The Google
    initiative has also amplified a long-standing debate among librarians,
    authors, publishers, and technologists over how to guarantee the
    fullest possible access to digitized books, including those still
    under copyright (which, in the United States, means everything
    published after January 1, 1923). The stakes are high, both for Google
    and for the library community--and the technologies and business
    agreements being framed now could determine how people use libraries
    for decades to come.

    "Industry has resources to invest that we don't have anymore and never
    will have," points out Gary Strong, university librarian at the
    University of California, Los Angeles, which has its own aggressive
    digitization programs. "And they've come to libraries because we have
    massive repositories of information. So we're natural partners in this
    venture, and we all bring different skills to the table. But we're
    redefining the table itself. Now that we're defining new channels of
    access, how do we make sure all this information is usable?"

    Breaching the Walls
    Even for authorized users, access to the Bodleian Library's seven
    million volumes is anything but instant. If you are an Oxford
    undergraduate in need of a book, you first send an electronic request
    to a worker in the library's underground stacks. (Before 2000 or so,
    you would have handed a written request slip to a librarian, who would
    have relayed it to the stacks via a 1940s-era network of pneumatic
    tubes.) The worker locates the book in a warren of movable shelves (a
    space-saving innovation conceived in 1898 by former British prime
    minister William Gladstone) and places it in a plastic bin. An
    ingenious system of conveyor belts and elevators, also built in the
    1940s, carries the bin back to any of seven reading rooms, where it is
    unpacked, and the book is handed over to you.

    The process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. But
    once you finally have the book, don't even think about taking it back
    to your dorm room for further study. The Bodleian is a noncirculating
    legal deposit library, meaning that it is entitled to a free copy of
    every book published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of
    Ireland, and it guards those copies jealously. The library takes in
    tens of thousands of books every year, but the legend is that no book
    has ever left its walls.

    But a digital book needn't be loaned out to be shared. And Oxford's
    various libraries have already created digital images of many of their
    greatest treasures, from ninth-century illuminated Latin manuscripts
    to 19th-century children's alphabet books. Most of these images can be
    examined at high resolution on the Web. The only catch is that
    scholars have to know what they're looking for in advance, since very
    few of the digital pages are searchable. Optical character recognition
    (OCR) technology cannot yet interpret handwritten script, so exposing
    the content of these books to today's search engines requires typing
    their texts into separate files linked to the original images. A
    three-person team at Oxford, in collaboration with librarians at the
    University of Michigan and 70 other universities, is doing just that
    for a large collection of early English books, but the entire effort
    produces searchable text for only 200 books per month. At that rate,
    making a million books searchable would take more than 400 years.

    That's where Google's resources will make a difference. Susan
    Wojcicki, a product manager at Google's Mountain View, CA, campus and
    leader of the Google Print project, puts it bluntly: "At Google we're
    good at doing things at scale."

    Google has already copied and indexed some eight billion Web pages,
    which lends credibility to its claim that it can digitize a big chunk
    of the 60 million volumes (counting duplicates) held by Harvard,
    Oxford, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public
    Library in a matter of years. It will be a complex task, but one that
    is in some ways familiar for the company. "It's not just feeding the
    books into some kind of digitization machine, but then actually taking
    the digital files, moving those files around, storing them,
    compressing them, OCR-ing them, indexing them, and serving them up,"
    points out Wojcicki. "At that point it becomes similar to all of
    Google's other businesses, where we're managing large amounts of
    data." But the entire project, Wojcicki admits, hinges on those
    digitization machines: a fleet of proprietary robotic cameras, still
    under development, that will turn the digitization of printed books
    into a true assembly-line process and, in theory, lower the cost to
    about $10 per book, compared to a minimum of $30 per book today.

    Neither Google nor its partner libraries have announced exactly how
    the process will work. But John Wilkin, associate university librarian
    at the University of Michigan, says it will go something like this:
    "We put a whole shelfful of books onto a cart, keeping the order
    intact. We check them out by waving them under a bar code reader.
    Overnight, software takes all the bar codes, extracts machine-readable
    records from the university's electronic catalogue, and sends the
    records to Google, so they can match them with the books. Then we move
    the cart into Google's operations room."

    This room will contain multiple workstations so that several books can
    be digitized in parallel. Google is designing the machines to minimize
    the impact on books, according to Wilkin. "They scan the books in
    order and return the cart to us," he continues. "We check them back in
    and mark the records to show they've been scanned. Finally, the
    digital files are shipped in a raw format to a Google data center and
    processed to produce something you could use."

    The Book Web
    Exactly how readers will be able to use the material, however, is
    still a bit foggy. Google will give each participating library a copy
    of the books it has digitized while keeping another for itself.
    Initially, Google will use its copy to augment its existing Google
    Print program, which mixes relevant snippets from recently published
    books into the usual results returned by its Web search tool. A user
    who clicks on a Google Print result is presented with an image of the
    book page containing his or her keyword, along with links to the sites
    of retailers selling the print version of the book and keyword-related
    ads sold to the highest bidders through Google's AdSense program.

    Does it bother librarians that Moby-Dick might be served up alongside
    an ad for the latest Moby CD? "To say we haven't worried about it
    would be wrong," says Wilkin. "But Google has a `good citizen'
    profile. The way they use AdSense doesn't trouble me. And if suddenly
    access were controlled, and there was a cost to view the materials, we
    could still offer them for free ourselves, or at least the
    out-of-copyright materials."

    In fact, Google may put the entire texts of these public-domain
    materials online itself. In the future, Google could even use those
    materials to create a kind of literary equivalent of the Web, says
    Wojcicki. "Imagine taking the whole Harvard library and saying, `Tell
    me about every book that has this specific person in it.' That in
    itself would be very powerful for scholars. But then you could start
    to see linkages between books"--that is, which books cite other books,
    and in what contexts, in the same way that websites refer to other
    sites through hyperlinks. "Just imagine the power that that would

    (Wojcicki's example shows how history can, indeed, come full circle.
    Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed BackRub, the
    predecessor to the Google search engine, while working on an early
    library digitization project at Stanford that was funded in part by
    the National Science Foundation's Digital Libraries Initiative. And
    PageRank, Google's core search algorithm, which orders sites in search
    results based on the number of other sites that link to them, is
    simply a computer scientist's version of citation analysis, long used
    to rate the influence of articles in scholarly print journals.)

    The Michigan library, says Wilkin, may do whatever it likes with the
    digital scans of its own holdings--as long as it doesn't share them
    with companies that could use them to compete with Google. Such
    limitations may prove uncomfortable, but most librarians say they can
    live with them, considering that their holdings wouldn't be digitized
    at all without Google's help.

    Closed Doors?
    But others are more cautious about the leap Google's partner libraries
    are taking. Brewster Kahle, who is often described as an inspiring
    visionary and sometimes as an impractical idealist, founded the
    nonprofit Internet Archive in 1996 under the motto "universal access
    to human knowledge." Since then, the archive has preserved more than a
    petabyte's worth of Web pages (a petabyte is a million gigabytes),
    along with 60,000 digital texts, 21,000 live concert recordings, and
    24,000 video files, from feature films to news broadcasts. It's all
    free for the taking at www.archive.org, and as you might guess, Kahle
    argues that all digital library materials should be as freely and
    openly accessible as physical library materials are now.

    That's not such a radical idea; free and open access is exactly what
    public libraries, as storehouses of printed books and periodicals,
    have traditionally provided. But the very fact that digital files are
    so much easier to share than physical books (which scares publishers
    just as MP3 file sharing scares record companies) could lead to limits
    on redistribution that prevent libraries from giving patrons as much
    access to their digital collections as they would like. "Google has
    brought us to a tipping point that could define how access to the
    world's literature may proceed," Kahle says.

    In Kahle's view, every previous digitization effort has followed one
    of three paths; with a bit of oratorical flourish, he calls them Door
    One, Door Two, and Door Three. (Kahle acknowledges up front that his
    picture is simplified, and that these aren't necessarily the only
    paths open to libraries today.)

    Door One, says Kahle, is epitomized by Corbis, an image-licensing firm
    owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Since the early 1990s, Corbis
    has acquired rights to digital reproductions of works from the
    National Gallery of London, the State Hermitage Museum in St.
    Petersburg, Russia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and more than 15
    other museums. In some cases, it's now impossible to use these images
    without paying Corbis. "This organization got its start by digitizing
    what was in the public domain and essentially putting it under private
    control," says Kahle. "The same thing could happen with digital
    literature. In fact, it's the default case."

    Behind Door Two, parallel public and private databases coexist
    peacefully. Here Kahle cites the Human Genome Project, which
    culminated in two versions of the DNA sequence of the human genome--a
    free version produced by government-funded scientists and a private
    version produced by Rockville, MD-based Celera Genomics and used by
    pharmaceutical companies to identify new drug candidates. The model
    has worked well in genomics, and Google seems to be setting out on a
    similar path, as it keeps one copy of each library's collection for
    itself and gives away the other. Kahle worries, however, that the
    restrictions Google imposes on libraries will prevent them from
    working with other companies or organizations to disseminate digital
    texts. Libraries might be barred, for example, from contributing
    material to projects such as the Internet Archive's Bookmobile, a van
    with satellite Internet access that can download and print any of
    20,000 public-domain books.

    Door Three, Kahle's favorite, hinges on new
    partnerships in which private companies offer commercial access to
    digital books while public entities, such as libraries, are allowed to
    provide free access for research and scholarship. Here his main
    example is the Internet Archive's collaboration with Alexa, a company
    founded by Kahle himself in 1996 and sold to Amazon in 1999. Alexa
    ranks websites according to the traffic they attract, and its servers,
    like Google's, constantly crawl the Internet, making copies of each
    page they find. But after six months, Alexa donates those copies to
    the Internet Archive, which preserves them for noncommercial use.
    "Jeff [Bezos, Amazon's CEO] was okay with the idea that there are some
    things you can exploit for commercial purposes for a certain amount of
    time, and then you play the open game," says Kahle. "Libraries and
    publishing have always existed in the physical world without damaging
    each other; in fact they support each other. What we would like to see
    is this tradition not die with this digital transformation."

    So which alternative comes closest to Google's plans? Google is no
    Corbis, says Wojcicki, but is nonetheless limited in what it can
    share. "Door One was never our intention, nor is it even practical,"
    she says. "And we can't do Door Three, because we're not the rights
    holders for much of this material. So Door Two is probably where we're
    headed. We're trying to be as open as possible, but we need to hold to
    our agreements with different parties."

    Precisely to avoid questions about copyright, Oxford librarians have
    decided that only 19th- and early 20th-century books will be handed
    over to Google for digitization. "Some of the other libraries,
    including Harvard, have agreed to have some in-copyright material
    digitized," says Ronald Milne, acting director of the Bodleian
    Library. "They are quite brave in taking it on. But we didn't
    particularly want to go there, because it's such a hassle, and we
    didn't want to get on the wrong side of the book laws."

    At the same time, though, the American Library Association is one of
    the loudest advocates of proposed legislation to reinforce the "fair
    use" provisions of federal copyright law, which entitle the public to
    republish portions of copyrighted works for purposes of commentary or
    criticism. And two of Google's partner universities--Harvard and
    Stanford--are also supporters of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a
    website that monitors allegations of copyright infringement brought
    against webmasters, bloggers, and other online publishers under the
    controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. Mass
    digitization may eventually force a redefinition of fair use, some
    librarians believe. The more public-domain literature that appears on
    the Web through Google Print, the greater the likelihood that citizens
    will demand an equitable but low-cost way to view the much larger mass
    of copyrighted books. "I think this will be another piece of good
    pressure, another factor in the whole debate over the DMCA," says

    The Mixing Chamber
    If you're over 30, today's libraries are probably nothing like the
    ones you remember from childhood. Enter any major library today and
    you'll find an armory of computers and a platoon of specialists, from
    the reference librarians who are expert at accessing online resources,
    to the acquisitions officers who decide which books, CDs, DVDs, and
    subscriptions to purchase, to the computer geeks who keep the
    building's network running.

    Digitization and the growing power of the Internet are making all of
    these people's jobs more complex. Acquisitions experts, for example,
    can no longer just rely on the traditional quality filter imposed by
    the publishing industry; they must evaluate a much larger mass of
    material, from newly digitized print books to the millions of Web
    pages, blogs, and news sites that are born digital. "On the Internet,
    publishing is a promiscuous activity," observes Abby Smith of the
    Council on Library Information and Resources. "Libraries are confused
    and challenged about how to collect and select from that material."

    Then there are the problems of cataloguing and preserving digital
    holdings. Without the proper "metadata" attached--author, publisher,
    date, and all the other information that once appeared in libraries'
    physical card catalogues--a digital book is as good as lost. Yet
    creating this metadata can be laborious, and no international standard
    has emerged to govern which kinds of data should be recorded. And
    considering the limited life span of each new data format or
    electronic storage medium (have you used a floppy disk lately?),
    keeping digital materials alive for future generations will,
    ironically, be much more costly and complicated than simply leaving a
    paper book on a library shelf.

    But even if every book is reduced to a few megabytes of 1s and 0s
    residing on some placeless Web server, libraries themselves will
    probably endure. "There is no one in the field of librarianship who
    thinks the library is disappearing as a physical space," says Smith.
    Seattle's exuberant new Central Library, for example, is built around
    a four-story spiral ramp that enables an unprecedented immediacy of
    access to its physical book collection. But at the same time, the
    library provides 400 public-use computers (compared to 75 in the
    library that previously occupied the site), buildingwide Wi-Fi access,
    and a high-tech "mixing chamber" where an interdisciplinary reference
    team uses an array of print and electronic resources to answer
    patrons' questions. More than 1.5 million people visited the new
    library in 2004--almost three times the entire population of Seattle.

    "The real question for libraries is, what's the `value proposition'
    they offer in a digital future?" says Smith. "I think it will be what
    it has always been: their ability to scan a large universe of
    knowledge out there, choose a subset of that, and gather it for
    description and cataloguing so people can find reliable and authentic
    information easily." The only difference: librarians will have a much
    bigger universe to navigate.

    Stephen Griffin, the former director of the National Science
    Foundation's Digital Libraries Initiative (a Clinton-era project that
    funds a variety of university computer-science studies on managing
    electronic collections), takes a slightly different view. Ask him how
    he thinks libraries will function in 2020 or 2050--once Google or its
    successors have finished digitizing the world's printed knowledge--and
    he answers from the reader's point of view. "The question is, how will
    people feel when they walk into libraries," he says. "I hope they feel
    the same--that this is a very welcoming place that is going to help
    them to find information that they need. As we bring more technology
    in, the notion of libraries as places for books may change a bit. But
    I hope people will always find them a comfortable place for thinking."

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