Kevin Kelly’s (2006) article “Scan this Book!” presents an idealistic view of what could someday be known as a Universal Library, where “unlike the libraries of the old, which were restricted to the elite, this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person” (p.1). The work around scanning and digitizing all books, documents, pieces of art and generally all knowledge in all languages has started. Page by page, this mass documentation is happening all over the world, with a major project to digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make their content searchable spearheaded by Google.
Kelly (2006) presents an optimistic view of this global undertaking and demonstrates the benefits of a universal library. Many universities are increasing their collection of books through the procurement of digital copies, which are then put into the hands of their students. This makes me think of my experience in the MET program as all learning in this program is done online. I have accessed the UBC library from my computer countless times over the past two years. There is no doubt that I have had numerous databases of academic journals at my fingertips, once I’ve logged in. What will happen when I have completed this program and am not a student at UBC? In effect, I will lose access to a major resource that could help me in my professional life. Will this be the case with the universal library? Even with Google Books, only portions of the books are available at the publisher’s discretion.
The movement towards virtual libraries is not unique to universities. Kelly (2006) states, “the main advantage of the coming digital library is portability” (p.4). We are experiencing this today, in fact, I read Kelly’s (2006) article on my iPad. Our students are more connected than ever and are able to access are read almost anything on the devices they carry in their pockets. I recently participated in a symposium on digital citizenship where during a panel discussion; a middle school principal stated that the physical space that the library was taking up in his school was valuable “real-estate”. He argued that there are fewer and fewer “gatekeepers” of digital information, and where there still are, they are “barbarians”. His view was for a “learning commons” approach in his school, where information would be accessible to his students no matter where they are physically in the school. Listening to this speaker, I couldn’t help but wonder about the social implications of implementing a learning commons approach. Is there not something to be said about the physical act of going to the library to check out books?
On the other hand, the affordances of a universal library with tagging and linking will interconnect many, many books, as we have seen with the Internet and social bookmarking sites, such as delicious.com. “Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books” (Kelly, 2006, p. 4). This cross-linking makes me think of the “Choose your own Adventure” books when I was a young reader. You can literally get lost in the multitude of data, although there is benefit in understanding the relationships and connections between books and other pieces of information, such as references.
We live in a culture of remix where the lines concerning intellectual property and copyright are blurred. Murphie & Potts, in their 2003 book “Culture & Technology” define Intellectual Property as “the ownership of particular items of knowledge, ideas or cultural production. This includes songs, texts, films, recordings, software, even chemical compounds or blocks of genetic material” (p. 68). Intellectual property rights are part of a larger web of copyright, reproduction, deconstruction, and freedom of expression. Furthermore, in the digital age, digital property comes into the mix in the form of remix and mashups. How would a universal library address these issues? Publishers have abandoned many books as it is uncertain who exactly owns the work.
Lawrence Lessig, the creator and founder of creative commons, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof has argued that copyright has always been at war with technology. According to Lessig, the creativity of millions of people has been displaced by our culture moving from a read-write culture to a read-only existence because of copyright. Now that we are in the 21st century, can we say that we are still only in a read-only existence due to copyright? Murphie & Potts (2003) state that this situation has engendered two types of responses: “one of near panic, as copyright holders have scrambled to protect their rights with recourse to the law; another of celebration, by those welcoming a digital public domain free of the excessive restrictions of copyright” (p. 69). Google’s approach is to “scan orphan books first and only afterward honor any legitimate requests to remove the scan” (Kelly, 2006, p. 10). Whether or not this is the correct approach, the digitization of a universal library must start somewhere.
In conclusion, Kelly’s (2006) article has left me excited about the possibilities of a digital library, but has also left me cautiously optimistic. Is an endeavour this enormous realistic? Most new works of writing will have a digital counterpart. With the rate of new books being produced, I wonder if we will ever be able to digitize knowledge of the past.
Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan this book! New York Times, pp. 1 – 14. Retrieved from: http://www.journalism.wisc.edu/~gdowney/courses/j201/pdf/readings/Kelly K 2006 NYT – Google Print.pdf
Murphie, A., & Potts, J. (2003). Culture & Technology. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.