Business Standard: The Library of Everything

SPEAKING VOLUMES, Nilanjana S Roy / New Delhi February 8, 2005

Authors, even bestselling ones, are haunted by the idea of mortality: some are doomed to see their books die in their lifetime, and the ones who are read fear secretly that future generations will forget their words. Booklovers are haunted by the idea of undiscovered continents: that somewhere beyond the horizon of their reading lie unforgettable works that they will never encounter. Neither category could fail to be moved by the concept Carlos Ruiz Zafon puts forward in The Shadow of the Wind: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
“This is a place of mystery, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens …In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new owner’s hands. In the shops we buy and sell them but in truth, books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend … According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive.”
Zafon’s cemetery is a labyrinthine construction of passageways and bookshelves leading out from a round hall in a huge edifice in Barcelona. It owes much to other imaginary libraries, from Borges’ gigantic library that would contain everything ever written onwards.
Perhaps we can imagine it best in this modern age, when the attempt to create a perpetually living library is reflected not in twisting corridors and wall-to-ceiling shelves crammed with musty tomes, but in online archives and websites.
Until recently, most attempts to create a web library relied on the old-world model; file indexes replaced catalogue cards, text or PDF files replaced actual volumes, but the ‘shelving system’ remained more or less the same. If you looked for Borges on a site like Project Gutenberg or the steadily growing Universal Library, for example, it would lead you to a small selection of books by or about Borges.
There were no complex links between texts; you could not, for instance, be taken directly from a Borges short story you were reading online to a similar work by an Arab writer, or call up all the short stories written in Argentina during the particular year that Borges wrote his tale.
Amazon raised the bar when the online bookshop–now more like a giant online mall that sells everything–introduced its ‘Look Inside a Book’ feature.
This attempted to replicate the real-world experience of browsing, where you could read the first chapter of or a few excerpts from a book. It had certain advanced features, however, that could only be matched by readers with phenomenally vast and accurate memories.
You could enter a random phrase, say ‘giant Sumatran rat’ or ‘Indian philosophy’, and Amazon’s search engine would riffle through the pages of its vast catalogue of books until it had come up with a list of references to books that employed these phrases. So if you were looking for stories that featured a giant Sumatran rat as the hero, or a treatise on the eating habits of the giant Sumatran rat, or references in Sumatran mythology to the rat, Amazon’s search feature was supposed to make it easier. In practice, this suffered from the usual drawback of online search engines–you got too much information and didn’t always get what you were looking for.
Two recent variations on this theme are either promising or ominous, depending on perspective. Google is beta-testing its Print Search feature (www.print.google.com), which marks one of the first mainstream online attempts to collectivise libraries. Google Print puts together a database of books already on microfilm or in e-text versions or in PDF file format at various libraries, and allows you to search that database for keywords and key phrases.
Even in Beta, it’s working better than Amazon’s search, while generating its share of controversy: many publishing houses and authors are nervous about copyright issues. Google has attempted to address their fears in several ways: the only complete works on database are out-of-copyright works, if you search for a book that is copyrighted at present, you will get only an excerpt or a few pages, and print or save file commands have been disabled on this engine.
Publishing houses are still grumbling about possible piracy issues, but they’re looking in the wrong direction. When the debates over music piracy and MP3 file sharing erupted in the wake of Napster, most people assumed that file sharing was an issue that would impact the music and the film-and-video industries, as it has.
The publishing world wasn’t worried at that time about the implications of electronic file sharing: most readers preferred physical books to e-books, there were few decent e-readers available, and relatively few people would share e-books online in the same way that they might share their music collections.
But as e-book layouts have improved and scanners have become more widely available, the publishing industry might find that its complacency is terribly misplaced. Shareaza is just one of the many new, improved file-sharing networks that offers users the opportunity to share books as well as audio and video files.
It currently has thousands of books available on the network, with more being added every month’and Shareaza is just one network. This generation is more comfortable reading off screen than the previous one, just as MP3 enthusiasts are prepared to live with a drop in music quality in order to access free music.
This is the face of the new, web library as I see it. It will act both as a force multiplier for readers and as a possible conduit for piracy. It will be a repository for rare books, a source for unusual books, and indeed, a cemetery for forgotten books.
But if it does become all-inclusive–if today’s publishers send an e-copy of every book to e-libraries as automatically as they do physical copies to brick-and-mortar libraries, for instance–it could end up being a junkyard rather than a resource. Imagine looking for Midnight’s Children and being pointed to childcare guides, treatises on the nature of time or Sheldon’s On the Other Side of Midnight instead.
Real libraries, however lovingly they try to preserve books both new and forgotten, are not inclusive beyond a point–the web on the other hand, depends on including everything.
What the new electronic libraries will need, whether its Google or MSN or filesharing networks, are filters. Or you could end up with vast electronic seas of information that no one ever bothers to trawl through.

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