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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4 Responses to Universal Library

  1. iirene says:

    Hi Ryosuke,

    The idea of a universal library sounds very nice, doesn’t it? Ideally, it would be easy and convenient access for all. But like regular print and regular libraries, there will be copyright problems. And the scale of those problems, because the library is universal and not just the small town library anymore, is enormous. Libraries though, have to deal with theft, defacement, eventual overuse of the books.

    I think that the set up of a digital library is not so different than the set up of a real library, such as how people or parties have to agree on terms for establishing it. Just that when there is a problem of copyright, the scale of the problem seems so much bigger because the audience is so much bigger online than in an old fashioned library.

    My first book is being published next month (fiction short stories) in regular print form, not available digitally. Though the writing originally came from me, it was changed very much by a translator, an editor and an illustrator. The end product will look very different than my original project. And the publication company has ownership of my book now. If my sales don’t reach a high enough number, the publisher will cut me off. I would be happy if a digital library stored my book, kept it from being “orphaned” even without personal profit.


    • rsuzuki says:

      Congratulations on your book publication! That is wonderful.

      Are you happy with changes the publishing company has made to your book? I am sure there must be a lot of frustrations in the process of completing your book.

      What do you think about copyright as an author? Do you feel like the copyright is protecting you in any ways?


      • iirene says:


        I enjoyed the actual process of writing. I never stepped foot into the publisher’s office, everything was done by word attachments, e-mail, editing software and back again (writing from my home computer in Osaka, while the office was in Tokyo). I met my publishers, editors, salespeople f2f only once in person, and they were pretty much drunk and didn’t talk business at that time.

        As for having that experience of how publications work, I think that it is all business. I am not a businessperson at all, I tend to believe that capitalism in an evil. So, I wrote in English, a professional and experienced Japanese translator ended up taking first name over me and the illustrator did not quite catch my vision. However, since this is my first marketable publication, I just swallowed my pride and let the book take its shape beyond my original design.

        Real books get ripped off, copied without permission, cut from print when they are no longer profitable. Digital versions of books, yes, they can be copied without permission also, but at least they reach a wider audience. And digital books can’t be defaced or burned, can they? : ) (^_^)

  2. lbonnor says:

    Congratulations on your book Irene. It is concerning that publishers can simply gain control and simply not continue to present a book. I am also concerned that governments or religious entities may deem certain books (as they have always done) to be inappropriate and so not continue to present them by gaining copyright control. I like the idea that Google will attept to encode all of the books but how feasible is that? It also puts us in the position of “always trust google”. I recently read The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, in which there was a maze-like library full of orphaned books. It made me think about all the ideas, true or not, that get lost. Will technology help us retrieve that or will the virtual librarian be the gate keeper?

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