The BS column: virtual books

(First published in the Business Standard, Speaking Volumes, MAY 17, 2005)

(This week, two new giant-sized bookcases arrived in the house and we finally unpacked the last three cartons of books, taking us back to square one: there are no books in the cartons, ergo, there is no space on the new bookshelves, but in the brief interval between acquiring the shelves in which to stack the books from the cartons, we have…bought more books. Roughly half of the books on my shelves fall into the category of books I don’t re-read often, but that I need to have around for reference. Most of this is Indian fiction, and the reason I need the books in person, so to speak, is because most of them are out of print now and are unlikely to ever be reprinted. This might explain why I would be very, very happy if publishers started offering at least the backlist in ebook/ digitised form. Otherwise, me and my husband are doomed: the future involves moving every three years to larger and larger houses, buying more and more bookcases to store all the books I can’t bear to donate, dump or discard…)

Most Indians are familiar with “bookless libraries”: they’re the ones you find in officially backward areas of the country where the books on the shelves have fallen to pieces or been stolen and sold to the raddiwallah.

It’s going to take a little time before we catch up with the contemporary definition of a bookless or digital library, the kind that university libraries in the US, Google worldwide, and the EU are separately trying to build. The NYT recently reported that the University of Texas is experimenting with a library which has a “24-hour electronic information commons”. This makes sense; the new generation of students is umbilically attached to the mobile phone and the mouse. Publishers have been putting more books into e-text format, and there’s an increasing demand for libraries to have computer bays and always-on access to the Net.

Google is building its own vast virtual library—it plans to digitize books from Harvard, Stanford, a few other US universities and Oxford University. This online repository will be open to all Google users, subject to the normal restrictions of copyright for now—readers will be able to search restricted portions of a currently copyrighted text and download the entire text, if they choose, of books that are out of the copyright domain.

This seems a worthwhile enough project, but it’s led to a rare show of unity among the nations that make up the European Union, who are worried that knowledge itself might end up US-centric. In the EU view, Google comes across as an evil wannabe master of the universe who plans nothing less than world domination. The EU plans to combat Google’s “cultural domination” with a digitization project that will bring together works from the libraries of six countries—France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary and Poland.

When the first e-books came out, many commentators wondered what this would mean for plain vanilla publishing and the humble book. Some of us predicted that this would change publishing, but mainstream publishers have been very resistant to e-text initiatives—they fear a Napsterisation of books, where readers would download texts for free rather than buy actual books. This is unlikely; even if e-book readers improve beyond the current clunky ones available, there is something about the physical book that we love and remain loyal to. William Crossman, a futurist and scholar, predicts that the written word as we know it will die out by 2050, but even he suspects that the book will not die out so much as assume new form.

Some assumed that e-books would open up a new market for emerging authors; but if you cut out the services of the editor, you’re left with the world’s largest slushpile. Even if publishing does warm up eventually to e-books, you’re not going to do away with the editor, the agent and the various other middlemen involved in the bookselling business quite that easily. But the real face of the ebook revolution might actually be Google’s digital library and other versions that involve the mass digitization of books. The biggest problem with the Net as a source of information is its built-in unreliability: “I found it on the Net” has become shorthand for lazy research, and few users are willing to explore the online world enough. It’s possible to find good, even great, repositories of information online, but it requires more browsing of the virtual stacks than most readers are comfortable with.

The thing about digitization is that it involves an initial high cost, but relatively low maintenance subsequently. Well-ordered virtual libraries might not replace the real-world model in a country like the US, with its history of excellent and easily accessible public libraries in every city. But the virtual library will change the browsing experience for the next generation of Net users, and it will change the ways in which we spread—and assimilate—knowledge.

India, like many Asian countries, does a terrible job of collecting and preserving books and manuscripts, and an even worse job of making this knowledge freely available to most of its citizens. The libraries that work are not open to all; the libraries that are open to all don’t work very well. It would take a combination of tremendous philanthropy and unflinching support from the state to build a network of truly public libraries—and building libraries is only half the job, the other half is maintaining them properly. But given the software expertise in the country, we’re in a position to catch up with the rest of the world now.

It wouldn’t take that much effort to build virtual libraries that might either become part of a network like Google’s, or form part of say, a Southern Hemisphere network. But it would require a different approach to books, manuscripts and other forms of knowledge. We tend to neglect books and archives to death, often letting them crumble into dust, or we hoard knowledge jealously and appoint guardians to determine who has access. Building a virtual library would require the kind of vision and willingness to collaborate that goes against the grain for many scholars. It would also require imagination: virtual libraries can be carried anywhere a laptop can go, but beyond that you’d have to be willing to print out texts and carry them into places that have no electricity, no plugpoints, no conception of the Net. In this country at least, the printed word is likely to have a tenacious grip on life.





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