The Big Book Has Missing Pages

Remember when Kevin Kelly issued a manifesto about how book scanning projects would change everything?

When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world’s only book.

Well, Microsoft has added some pages to that big book as they launch their Books Live Beta. Pick up more detailed information over at The Resource Shelf, with handy comparisons of Google Book Search and Amazon’s Search Inside – as well as a reminder of many other fine sources of full-text digital books.

Microsoft is avoiding the legal hot seat by scanning only public domain books from libraries and showing limited portions from books submitted by publishers. (Google includes snippets from books scanned in libraries – including limited selections from public domain government documents found in participating libraries; apparently they’re in too much of a hurry to worry about fine points.)

So at this point, Kelly’s Big Book o’ Everything is a long way from reality. Even if Google can convince the courts what they’re doing is legal, the user will only be able to view scraps, and certainly won’t be able to do any of the interactive remixing that Kelly envisions.

There’s a school of thought shared by Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, the National Academies Press, and (believe it or not) Forbes Magazine that full text online access to book content is not going to destroy the industry – it might just save it.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful to live in a state where interlibrary loan is ubiquitous and efficient. It may not be the interactive Nirvana Kelly describes (one I’m not too crazy about), but it has given every resident in the state free access to millions of books. Pretty amazing, in its own, quiet way.

Author: 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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