A Universal, Virtual Library – Coming Soon?

Humans have always felt a need to record and preserve information for later access. Tracing back to Mesopotamia, libraries have functioned to collect, organize, and retain the writing of a culture. As we step further into the digital future, not only is our definition of writing changing, so is the manner in which we need to store, share, and preserve our history.

Although there is stability in printed text, there is a perceived need to store text digitally in a virtual or universal library. This digital library would provide one place to store all past and present knowledge. This knowledge would consist of all books, conceptual works, all languages. Kelly (2006) goes one step further, arguing the library contents should include “the entire works of humankind…available to all people, all the time”. Is it possible to collect and archive every work of art, broadcast, film, and site ever created?

The dream of a virtual library has been imagined for decades – initially as a sci-fi dream involving special goggles and helmets. Now, this vision “is weighed down with silicon chips, keyboards, screens, headsets, and other cumbersome equipment” (O’Donnell, 1993). In 2004, Google made a giant leap towards the dream, announcing they would digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make the contents searchable, thus making every book available to every citizen with internet access. Grafton (2007) believes that the virtual library’s ability to bring all books in the world together would make it the greatest technology to impact reading since the invention of the printing press.

The Challenge of Copyright
Unfortunately, most of the world’s expertise still lies within printed books, and organizations are currently scanning about one million books a year. Changes to copyright law resulted in the abandonment of a large number of printed works. Kelly (2006) states that 75% of the world’s books are ‘orphaned’, 15% are public domain, and only 10% are still in print. Google believes they have solved the copyright issues by scanning copyrighted books, working with publishing partners to scan the 10% of printed books, and then scanning the remaining 75% without first resolving the copyright status. Google is only showing short snippets of these orphaned books, therefore still functioning with the copyright laws.

Jenner (2011) reminds us that copyright law supports the creator’s income, therefore encouraging creation of new content. Digital environments negatively affect the flow of content, limiting revenue. Currently, there is no universal database of recorded music that provides information regarding ownership, publication and performance rights. The same needs to be considered in the creation of a virtual library encompassing all text.

The Benefits
The dream of a universal library is one where not only is text accessible by every citizen, but it is organized in such a way that text can be understood at a deeper level. Kelly (2006) describes the capabilities: digital materials will be linked so that consumers will be able to connect to other materials based on subject, author, tags, and categories. Just as online search engines can predict and analyze our browsing histories, our digital library would use our preferences to create a community. Text consumers could be brought together over common text interests, and reading would become a shared activity. A community would be created through bookmarking, shared resources, and virtual bookshelves.

Kelly (2006) believes there are several key advantages to virtual libraries. Publications with limited following would find a larger audience, due to the ability to share within a community of readers and a deeper grasp of history would be possible. Readers would become more aware of what they know and don’t know, and there is greater possibility of interaction and participation with text. Making printed works searchable increases the ability to share text, thus making it more valuable.

Personally, I can’t imagine that printed books will ever become obsolete. Despite the increase in digital text available online, consumers continue to use both digital and print text. The number of printed books sold each year continues to increase, as does the number of PDF documents read online without printing (Kelly, 2006).

The Hesitation
Brand (1999) reminds us that digital storage has a limited lifespan. When we discontinue one form of storing text, there is concern that the technology used to store and locate information will become obsolete. Culture is being lost when we are no longer able to access past text. There is also concern that transitioning to a virtual library will be difficult due to the various computer systems and processing formats in use. It may take several generations to instigate true change, in which one format of storing and accessing text is used by all.

There is also difficulty in managing a universal library; computers and software change at a rapid pace. Brand (1999) states “there is still nothing in the digital world like acid-free paper” and believes we are at risk for losing our cultural memory at the price of staying current. Text goes through small changes to make it compatible with various storage formats. Consider the way storage has changed through floppy disks, to cd-rom, to online storage. With each change we have made in how we store text, we risk losing information. Think of the files you currently have stored on floppy disks. How do we access that information now?

Google has two projects working since 2002 – Google Book Search and Google Library Project, collaborating with publishers to digitize as many books as possible. There are some problems with the documents scanned by Google – some versions are mistakenly transcribed, some miss pages, and some are out of order.

Currently we are functioning within a short term solution, and we need something consistent and reliable that will last us centuries. Brand (1999) believes that digital storage is not the issue, instead it is preservation of material that we must be concerned with. Preservation will be a challenge for non-profit organizations like libraries and universities; they face significant effort and expense, in order to develop a system for easy cataloging and access. O’Donnell believes it will take several generations to move into a new medium for storing and accessing digital texts. How do we determine the best way to archive material digitally?

In this information age, we yearn for speed and reliability in the manner in which we search and retrieve text. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available to us. The move towards one universal, digital library creates the possibility for greatness, as well as many potential pitfalls. We have the technology to solve these problems, but we don’t have the long-term solutions necessary to effectively preserve our culture and text. What should be included in this virtual library?



Brand, Stewart; Sanders, Terry. Escaping the Digital Dark Age. Library Journal 124. 2 (Feb 1, 1999): 46-48.

Grafton, A. (2007, Nov 5). Future reading: Digitation and its discontents. The New Yorker. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2012 from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton?currentPage=all

Jenner, Peter, Copyright in the Digital Age; Benefiting Users and Creators? (December 31, 2011). Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 55-64, 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2024579

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan this book! The New York Times. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html?pagewanted=all

O’Donnell, James J. Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. 44-49.

O’Donnell, James J. The virtual library: An idea whose time has passed. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2012 from http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html

This entry was posted in Technology, Text and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Universal, Virtual Library – Coming Soon?

  1. smyers says:

    Kym, we had very similar ideas in our first commentaries. (-:
    You did an excellent job of covering a lot of ground. It is a complicated matter with many facets.
    They copyright issue is an interesting one. That could have been a commentary all its own. What a complicated mess that is! I was shocked when I read that Google was scanning all of the books without having the permission to do so. It reminded me of the saying, “Act now, apologize later” which is something that only those who have power ($) tend to get away with. If you get a chance, listen to the podcast “the Great Libary 2.0.” on CBC. It was really interesting to hear from those who work for Google and those who clearly don’t with respect to copyright.

Leave a Reply