Friday, May 21, 2004

Dreams of an Invisible Library

Amazon's search inside the book function is old news by now but it's importance has yet to be fully explored. This Wired News story: The Great Library of Amazonia attempts to draw a map of this new land, and manages to make a few good points along the way. However, as is the case with all newly discovered territories, there's a lot of myth woven in to the accounts of travels there, and I'm carrying this metaphor too far.

The point is, yes, the SIB function is new, it's exciting, it's got pixidust all over it. The major advantage, that it makes searching the text of some books faster and easier is a selling point (and just so I don't sound like a crank, let me clarify by saying I have used the SIB function for some of my work in grad school, doing e-reference and it is useful). But there is still the problem that it's only for some books, and only for parts of those books.

120,000 books sounds like a lot, but there are millions of books in print and even more, out of print. Getting all books, everywhere into a searchable database would be fantastic, the dream of Ptolmy, Borges and every Librarian since, come true. But there are obstacles, most notably, the 8th pit of hell known as American copyright law that has to be overcome before most of these books can be accessible in such a database. And even then, there is the problem of actually scanning every page. Who will do it? Amazon, in order to get there 120K books scanned, outsourced to low-wage countries like India and the Philippines. While this might be one of the few instances where outsourcing would be not quite as unethical (since it's for the greater good of making the world's libraries accessible to all; sort of like conferring on the wage slaves of Bangladesh the venerable title of scribe, without the benefits) it's still a slippery argument that I wouldn't really want to grant legitimacy to.

So it's still a thorny issue. While I for one, would love and appreciate to the highest degree such a valuable online database (so long as it were freely available, like Google or Amazon SIB, and not subscription based, like Lexisnexis or Dialog) then perhaps we could outsource the labor. But it should be outsourced everywhere, divided among the countries of the world who have the means and the funds to pay their digital scribes living wages, if not salaries. This, I could get behind. I would even gladly do my part as a librarian in scanning in books. But this project would be of such a magnificent scope that the powers that be would be far too tempted to employ slave wages in order to cut corners. And frankly, we have enough pyramids as it is.

Update: edited to squash Fnords.

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