Universal Library

Commentary 1:

In the article, Scan This Book!, Kevin Kelly discusses the possibility of establishing a universal library. Kelly argues that the benefits of the universal library with digitalized materials surpass the traditional library with printed materials. The universal library would enable people to access all available digitalized materials, such as books, articles, images, and films from anywhere in the world. According to Kelly, there are two major advantages of the digitalized universal library. First advantage is portability. Not only does it make it easier for people to read digitalized books, but also it enables libraries to increase their collection at cheaper cost. Secondly, people will benefit from the interconnectivity of digitalized materials that are cross-linked with other materials.

Today, publishers control the fate of printed books. Publishers who have heavily relied on cheap mass produced copies to make profits for years do not print unprofitable books. According to Kelly, “It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark” (Kelly, 2006, p. 8). About 75 percent of all books in the world’s libraries have been “orphaned.”

Kelly points out key issues that are hindering the digitalization of printed materials. Corporations and libraries around the world are now scanning about a million books per year (Kelly, 2006, p. 2). However, it is not enough to establish a universal library. One stumbling block is the copyright law. Today, more intellectual property is owned by corporations rather than by individuals (Kelly, 2006). These corporations influence the nature of copyright law for their own benefit. According to existing copyrights, “nothing – no published creative works of any type – will fall out of protection and return to the public domain until 2019. Almost everything created today will not return to the commons until the next century” (Kelly, 2006, p. 8). This reality seems to thwart any attempt at creating a digitalized universal library. Another problem is the copyrighting is that large publishers are not certain about what they actually own. A list of copyrighted works does not exist anywhere. Tracking and identifying the copyright owner for each book seems impossible.

Google hopes to rescue these orphaned books by digitalizing them. They will display the entire digitalized book for out-of-copyright books, while they will only show excerpts of digitalized versions of in-print books. Google has the ability to save millions of abandoned books. However, many publishers and authors stand against Google. The two main reasons for their objection are potential lost revenue and violation of copyright. Publishers and authors question the fact that scanned materials exist on Google’s server. Although publishers do receive shared revenues from ads posted on Google, they also want revenues from the books they abandoned. Many publishers are also questioning the Google’s approach of scanning the materials first and then dealing with the copyright issue. Kelly quotes Jane Friedman the C.E.O. of HarperCollins, “I don’t expect this suit to be resolved in my lifetime” (Kelly, 2006, p. 13). This indicates a long battle for this legal clash.

Kelly is an advocate of the universal library with access to all knowledge of the past and present. He goes on to explain the benefits that a universal library could offer. However, his vision of the library where “the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time” (Kelly, 2006, 2) seems too unrealistic. He does recognize and discuss the setbacks of establishing a universal library, but he does not demonstrate how those obstacles can be resolved. For example, when he points out the copyright problem, Kelly does not provide us with clear solutions to resolve this conflict. It is not enough to just propose an idealistic universal library without also suggesting methods to overcome the existing hindrances. Kelly does suggest a new business model, in which “authors and artists can make their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them” (Kelly, 2006, p. 12). However, I find this business model is unrealistic. How large publishers could be persuaded is in question. How would they make money in this new business model?

Establishing a universal library with cross-linked digitalized materials is a great dream for our and future generations, however, everybody has to agree with the terms involved in the set-up of the library in order for it to be realized. For example, not only some, but all of the publishers’ materials would have to be digitalized and cross-referenced online. With large publishers owning or claiming copyright to certain materials, it seems that they are not willing to make all of their resources free.

Finally, there is a great danger concerning control and ownership of the digitalized materials. Kelly lists some major corporations and institutions digitalizing printed materials, such as Amazon, Google, Stanford Libraries, and Superstar. Who would control the digitalized materials if there were to be a digitalized universal library? According to Kelly, more and more materials are digitalized in China and India because it is inexpensive. Does that mean they could control more digitalized materials? Kelly says, “If you can truly incorporate all texts on a particular subject then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know” (Kelly, 2006, p. 6). This is only true if every single text is scanned and becomes available. Who would decide what materials to scan? It is difficult to envision the existence of a universal library when those who are motivated by making profits like large publishers in various countries are involved in the process. Technology to establish a digitalized universal library is already here today, but there are still a lot of obstacles that need to be resolved in order to achieve this goal.

Kelly, K. (2006). Scan This Book! New York Times, May 14, 2006. Retrieved October 1, 2010,
from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html

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