Google’s ambitious book-scanning program is foundering in the courts. Now a Harvard-led group is launching its own sweeping effort to put our literary heritage online. Will the Ivy League succeed where Silicon Valley failed?
By Nicholas Carr on
MIT Tecnology Review, April 25, 2012
In his 1938 book World Brain, H.G. Wells imagined a time—not very distant, he believed—when every person on the planet would have easy access to “all that is thought or known.”
The 1930s were a decade of rapid advances in microphotography, and Wells assumed that microfilm would be the technology to make the corpus of human knowledge universally available. “The time is close at hand,” he wrote, “when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.”
Wells’s optimism was misplaced. The Second World War put idealistic ventures on hold, and after peace was restored, technical constraints made his plan unworkable. Though microfilm would remain an important medium for storing and preserving documents, it proved too unwieldy, too fragile, and too expensive to serve as the basis for a broad system of knowledge transmission. But Wells’s idea is still alive. Today, 75 years later, the prospect of creating a public repository of every book ever published—what the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer calls “the library of utopia“—seems well within our grasp. With the Internet, we have an information system that can store and transmit documents efficiently and cheaply, delivering them on demand to anyone with a computer or a smart phone. All that remains to be done is to digitize the more than 100 million books that have appeared since Gutenberg invented movable type, index their contents, add some descriptive metadata, and put them online with tools for viewing and searching.
Google had the smarts and the money to scan millions of books into its database, but the major problems with constructing a universal library has little to do with technology.