17 July 2007

The Open Library Opens Its Doors

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.

Fine words, but turning them into reality is a monstrous undertaking. Not because any of the required technologies are that difficult to develop or implement, but simply because the current hypertrophied copyright system makes it impossible.

At best, the Open Library will provide us with a bunch of public domain texts like Project Gutenberg, but prettified, plus what looks like a wikified catalogue with tantalising info about all the other books we can't read online.

That's all great to have, and kudos is due to all those behind the project, but is but a pale imitation of what we could - should - have if copyright did its job of encouraging new creation, and got out of the way of such laudable projects.

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