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Anthony Grafton on the Google Library Project

Well worth reading:  Anthony Grafton’s essay in The New Yorker on Google’s Library Project and its digitization cousins and the questions that these projects do — and do not -raise:

In fact, the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind. The hype and rhetoric make it hard to grasp what Google and Microsoft and their partner libraries are actually doing. We have clearly reached a new point in the history of text production. On many fronts, traditional periodicals and books are making way for blogs and other electronic formats. But magazines and books still sell a lot of copies. The rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up but in one in a long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive. . . .

The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database. Neither Google nor anyone else will fuse the proprietary databases of early books and the local systems created by individual archives into one accessible store of information. Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.

It’s not just tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another; Grafton’s piece falls around you with a tidal wave of metaphors.

Read the whole excellent thing here.

And read this fascinating profile of Grafton himself.

1 thought on “Anthony Grafton on the Google Library Project”

  1. That’s a compelling and sensible take on the matter. I’m reminded of the Making of Modern Law project: an amazing collection of legal resources, but pretty costly at (I believe) $200K (plus ongoing maintenance fee). I am very interested in whether its licensing agreement with law libraries a) requires physical presence at the library and b) keeps anyone not affiliated with the licensee to view the materials.

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