Open Library Opens

There is a temptation to think big when it comes to books. For example, here’s a clip from the newly-revealed Open Library Project’s website, part of the Internet Archive .

What if there was a library which held every book? Not every book on sale, or every important book, or even every book in English, but simply every book—a key part of our planet’s cultural legacy.

First, the library must be on the Internet. No physical space could be as big or as universally accessible as a public web site. The site would be like Wikipedia—a public resource that anyone in any country could access and that others could rework into different formats.

Second, it must be grandly comprehensive. It would take catalog entries from every library and publisher and random Internet user who is willing to donate them. It would link to places where each book could be bought, borrowed, or downloaded. It would collect reviews and references and discussions and every other piece of data about the book it could get its hands on.

But most importantly, such a library must be fully open. Not simply “free to the people,” as the grand banner across the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh proclaims, but a product of the people: letting them create and curate its catalog, contribute to its content, participate in its governance, and have full, free access to its data. In an era where library data and Internet databases are being run by money-seeking companies behind closed doors, it’s more important than ever to be open.

So let us do just that: let us build the Open Library.

It’s a little far from complete, to say the least, and the building won’t be easy, but it’s an interesting concept. Basically, if I understand it, it’s a wiki platform for combining information about books from various sources to create a single, open source, publicly-built and publicly-modified catalog of books past and present. It’s sort of like Google Book Search, only it isn’t owned and controlled by a mega-corporation. It’s a little like Library Thing, but more ambitious in its goals. (Library Thing is excited.) It’s a little like OCLC’s Open WorldCat only it’s . . . open. In the free web version of WorldCat, the public can find books and add reviews, but only libraries that pay for the not-open Worldcat are included and they must subscribe to the First Search version to underwrite the free version.

Will librarians embrace this new project? Will book lovers? Library Thing has over 2 million unique records, WorldCat has 85 million, and Google won’t say. The Open Library demo has apparently around half a million records so far, but to be fair it’s only been open for a few days. It remains to be seen how it will catch up and become as complete as it would like to be.

What’s really interesting to me about these visions of a complete and public library is that they make three very interesting assumptions: first, that books are an irreplaceable cultural resource; second, that ideally they should be available to all, without charge; and third, the best catalog includes everything ever published. There’s a touching belief here that books and democracy are somehow interconnected, and that everyone should have access to books – all books. It’s a little ironic, when so many communities are deciding they really can’t afford a public library anymore.

Still, optimism about a DIY Internet-based library catalog abounds. Over at BoingBoing Rich Prelinger says “I have a hunch that it’s going to be the primary way many if not most people access books, and I see it becoming an always-open window on the desk of every librarian.”

We shall see . . .

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

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