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.
“It is about sharing as openly as possible — and that’s really liberating ... we’re almost a non-threat to the rest of the Web, because we’re not keeping the property,” she said.
Oates knows a thing or two about sharing objects online. For the past few years, the Australian was one of the leading lights at the popular photo Website Flickr — spending four years as lead designer, before moving to a role that included projects such as the Commons: a scheme to use Flickr as a window on publicly held photography collections.
The lessons from her previous work are carrying through to the project in obvious ways — a redesign is being mooted to make the site more palatable to those who don’t have a degree in library science. But she is also hoping to introduce some sense of serendipity or exploration to the records.
“Right now it’s about search and retrieve, and there’s no sense of browsing or skipping around,” she said. “In the future we can start to do queries like ‘show me all the popular subjects that were written about in 1934.’ You can start to trend that over time, look at peaks and troughs in areas of interest. The data’s all there, but it’s about making connections that are inferred by the data itself — I’m really excited by that.”
Propagating that idea could be made more difficult by Google, which last week revamped its book search to make it a more sleek and social experience. Oates said she doesn’t see that in adversarial terms, however.
“The book search on Google is awesome — they’ve thrown a shitload of computing power at it, and you can see books that mention things, Websites that mention those books and books on a map. It’s useful, but it’s really clinical,” she said.
Oates won’t say any more about Google, but her colleagues are less reticent. Peter Brantley, the archive’s director of access, has been a vocal critic of the company’s plans — even going as far as calling Google’s attempt to gain exemption against future copyright claims as “disgusting.”
There is certainly a tension between the two schemes, partially because their intentions are so similar while their approaches are so different. But, while Google has the backing of many publishers, who see the chance to make some extra cash in the deal, one crucial ally for OL may be the academic world.
If the scheme gives researchers and students the chance to use OL in their work — referring to an OL page as a citation source, or building a bibliography using its tools — they could get a core audience that spreads the concept. Plus, of course, the idea is that Open Library will remain just that — open — forever.
“The longevity of the work that we’re doing is a bit of a culture shock, and a really curious solution to provide,” she said. “How do we write stuff to disk that’s going to be retrievable in 1,000 years?”
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