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The universal library that will never close

The Open Library hopes to unite the Internet and the printed word by creating a Web page for every book

By Bobbie Johnson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Internet’s relationship with books, it is fair to say, has been a tumultuous one. Ever since the digital revolution started changing our relationship with information, the printed word — one of the most successful technologies in history — has been on the back foot.

Amazon has altered the face of the industry twice — first in the 1990s by changing the way books are sold and then, more recently, the way they are consumed, with its Kindle electronic book reader. Google has caused its own earthquake in the print world with its Book Search scheme — a plan to suck the text of millions of books into its search engine that has raised the hackles of publishers and authors alike.

Talk to workers at either of these technology companies and there is a feeling of technological inevitability: that the printed book is a stepping stone in the ­evolution of information, and now lies ready to be devoured by its hi-tech successors.

Not everybody thinks that way, however, including the Open Library (OL, openlibrary.org) — a project with an audacious goal that it hopes can bring the Web and books closer together.

The scheme is to create a single page on the Web for every book that has ever been published; an enormous, searchable catalogue of information about millions of books. It is still in beta, but already more than 23 million books are in its system, drawing information from 19 major libraries and linking to the text of more than 1 million out-of-copyright titles.

That is admirable work for just a handful of staff at the library, an arm of the non-profit Internet Archive (which itself has the vast objective of trying to keep a historical record of the Web for future generations). But with information about books already being processed by hugely popular Websites such as Google and Amazon, the question remains — why bother?

George Oates, the newly installed project leader, said it’s a way to preserve book records for history and, crucially, make the information usable by anybody.

“It’s remarkably difficult to unify this information,” she said, when we meet at the Internet Archive building in San Francisco’s leafy Presidio park, a former military outpost that is, rather aptly, historically preserved. “As much as the libraries attempt to have similar standards and orders, there are always ‘gotchas’ and nooks and crannies that have to be worked out.”

More than simply bringing together cold lists of books from isolated libraries, however, she also believes OL can breathe life into books by grabbing information from around the Internet.

“Imagine books more as a networked object, rather than a single entity,” she said. “We start with this kernel and then we see what we can pile onto it ... it’s a locus for all the information about a book that’s on the wider Web.”

In a way, it’s like a Wikipedia for printed material (indeed, it runs on wiki software, allowing anyone to add their own notes on different books or editions). And Oates, who took over the project this year, is hoping to turn it from a skillful attempt to ingest vast amounts of data into something that is useful to ordinary people.

The site can potentially pull information from all over the Web — retailers, reviews, book clubs, forums and enthusiast sites — as well as from social networks that already exist for bibliophiles, such as LibraryThing or GoodReads.

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