Monday, May 15, 2006

On scanning books

The New York Times Magazine for May 14, 2006 has an article by Kevin Kelly entitled "Scan This Book!" I have seen references to it around the biblioblogosphere, so initially I figured I would not post or comment on it since the big guns would take care of that for me. However, when my Systems Librarian asked me if I had seen the article and sent me a link to it, I figured I should take a look at it. Please note I give the citation information since I have no idea how long the link will last. For readers wanting more of the discussion, a technorati search may be helpful. Here is one.

The article makes for a good summary of the book scanning efforts going on, of what Google is doing, and it does a pretty good job of explaining it to the general readers. What struck me, and this is my one question, is the issue of access. The utopian vision that Mr. Kelly evokes of everyone having a universal library in an I-Pod assumes that everyone will have an I-Pod, let alone access to computers. For instance, Mr. Kelly writes, "And unlike libraries of old, which were restricted to the elite, this [universal] library would be truly democractic, offering every book to every person." And I read that, and my initial thought was, "not so fast, bucko." This really means just every person with access to a computer, and the computer having access to the Internet. This is nowhere near a reality now, and given how the digital divide is shaping, it is not about to happen anytime soon. Until you solve for truly providing access to the Internet and the World Wide Web for everyone, this little vision is not going to happen. Add to this various corporate initiatives to restrict access from the issue of Net Neutrality to recent legislation to prohibit use of social software (also known as the MySpace Hysteria bill, also known as DOPA, which by the way sounds like "dope," but I will avoid name-calling towards those in hysterics). My question, as it often is when someone proposes the latest utopia, is what about those who lack access now? What about those who may be at a disadvantage? And then there are copyright restrictions. Sure, we can get all sorts of music online, but the issue is whether we can actually listen to it or not. Do we have access to it? What kind of access?

On another passage, Mr. Kelly writes, "It is the underbooked--students in Mali, scientists in Kazakhstan, elderly people in Peru--whose lives will be transformed when even the simplest unadorned version of the universal library is placed in their hands." While I am not saying places like these are technological wastelands, again, who is asking about access? If we can't even serve them with books, what makes it so easy to say we can just provide a universal library by waving a wand?

I guess my overall question is will we really be serving everyone down the road, or just the technological elite? Is this something that can truly be universal, or is it something for the dwellers of Mount Ubertech?

The article does a very good job of outlining the issues around copyright, including the seemingly shortsighted decision by Congress to extend copyright 70 years past the life of a creator where it clearly has no use to that creator. I personally don't think copyright should be something to provide for large corporations and the great grandchildren of a creator. However, maybe readers should read the article, read more on the topic and decide for themselves. Overall, an interesting piece.

Update note (5/16/06): T. Scott also responded to the NYT piece by reminding us that books are more than containers. Worth a look.

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