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Library in Cyberspace


Library in Cyberspace

by Kenneth Lyen

I don’t know who first said, "knowledge shared is knowledge gained." But it is a sentiment that I would agree with. Knowledge lying dormant in books is of little value unless it is discovered and used. It is similar to burying one’s talent where it will remain untapped and its potential unfulfilled.

The Royal Library of Alexandria was once the largest in the world. It was probably founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC. At its peak it stored approximately 400,000 to 700,000 scrolls. Sadly the library was burnt down towards the end of the 3rd century AD. The loss of the world’s learning up to then is incalculable, and may have set civilization back by centuries. What a tragic loss.

I am therefore delighted to hear that the search engine Google plans to make available online millions of books from five libraries, including the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the New York Public Library, and libraries of Harvard, Stanford and Michigan Universities. Google will digitize the books and place it into their searchable database.

Already the project is recognized as one of the 21st century’s major accomplishments. It is a communications revolution as great as the invention of moveable type by Johann Gutenberg (1398-1468).

Michigan and Stanford have offered to digitize their entire library collections of about 15 million books. The Bodleian is offering around one million books published before 1900. The New York library is allowing Google to digitize a small portion of its books no longer covered by copyright, while Harvard is confining its initial participation to 40,000 volumes so it can assess how well the process works.

The project will allow free access to historic publications and other rare out-of-print titles that previously were only available to specialized researchers. Among the landmark books to be made available are a 1687 first edition of Isaac Newton's "Principia," owned by Stanford and Charles Darwin's 1871 classic "The Descent of Man" in the Bodleian.

Current copyright laws only allows Google to copy books in the public domain. For more recent books, they can only copy snippets of two or three sentences from each library book.

The cost of digitization will be borne by Google, with cost estimates ranging from 150 million to 200 million dollars, or about 10 dollars per book. The entire project is expected to take about ten years.

Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the American Library Association, thinks the value of helping people from anywhere in the world view a library's special collections is "almost priceless." This will benefit some of the poorer nations.

Will this explosion of free knowledge kill off our neighborhood libraries? Probably some. Already my visits to the public library has decreased precipitously once I discovered that I can obtain all the information I want from the internet. It would have fallen even further were it not for the fact that my library now lends DVDs and CDs, a service not quite overtaken yet by the internet.

The net result of allowing so much literature freely available is that it will enrich our lives, and stimulate greater interest in scholarship and writing.

One final comment. If any of the old libraries should accidentally burn down, the information will hopefully be safely stored in cyberspace.

18 December 2004