Online library effort may create tangled web

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

As some of you may know the Internet search company Google is attempting to create an online library of approximately 10 million full-text, searchable books.

These books will someday be made free and available to anyone with Internet access.

The project was first announced in 2004 and promises to revolutionize the way the world reads. Google's dream is to build a modern day version of the ancient library in Alexandria which in 300 B.C. housed all the learning of the Western world.

The process of making this resource is spectacularly tough, though. The uber-wealthy Googlers are paying people to sit and scan each and every text shelved in five of the world's largest research libraries.


Every book these gnomes scan costs about $30 in labor and Google will not see a penny of profit until a long way down the road.

It's a great, big, daring endeavor and rightly has a lot of supporters.

If completed, it will surely level the playing field for billions of Third-World readers who have almost no access to books today.

It will also be a renaissance for forgotten literature. Experts believe as many as 75 percent of known books are out of print and nearly impossible to find. Scanning them and putting them online could save these books from the memory hole.

But the plan has its drawbacks.

The loudest voices of dissent are book publishers. To them, this online project sounds like the executioner's bell for their business and a serious violation of intellectual property rights.

But, as a book lover, that's not what worries me. Copyright will always be good enough to protect living authors and irrelevant for the dead ones.

No, there's a different aspect of the project that has me worried. For lack of a better word I'll call it the "clickability" factor.

You see, Google's eventual goal is to link every book ever written and, some day, every scrap of human knowledge, too.

Imagine a massive spider web of data.

It would be a world where fiction would link to history which would link to biography which would link to biology which might end with a link to chemistry.

Talk about a roller coaster ride.

To give an idea of what this could mean, imagine I'm reading the passage "Et Tu, Brute?" from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." In Google's world, the first click on the words would give me the Latin translation of the text, the second click might send me to Shakespeare's biography and influences, with the third click I'd zoom off to the definitive history of the murder, the fourth click might give me the anthropology of regicide, and so one and so one.

It's enough to make your head spin.

But to Google it's beautiful. It would be the literary equivalent of the popular Google Earth where a scroll of the mouse takes you from a satellite image of the planet to your front porch.

Unfortunately, the world is never that neat and tidy. Trying to make it that way seems to me a colossal bit of hubris. In fact, it reminds me of a tower someone once tried to build.

So in the years ahead I'll be watching closely to see how Google fares. I wish them all the best, but I think I'll stick to the books with words that stop at the end of the page.

I'm content to let my imagination take over from there.

TJ Greaney is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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