what's a library? 01.09.2005, 9:52 PM
posted by ben vershbow
In a recent discussion in these pages, Gary Frost has suggested that the Google library model would be premised on an inter-library loan system, "extending" the preeminence of print. Sure, enabling "inside the book" browsing of library collections will allow people to engage remotely with print volumes on distant shelves, and will help them track down physical copies if they so desire. But do we really expect this to be the primary function of such a powerful resource?
We have to ask what this Google library intitiative is really aiming to do. What is the point? Is it simply a search tool for accessing physical collections, or is it truly a library in its own right? A library encompasses architecture, other people, temptations, distractions, whispers, touch. If the Google library is nothing more than a dynamic book locator, then it will have fallen terribly short of its immense potential to bring these afore-mentioned qualities into virtual space. Inside-the-book browsing is a sad echo of actual tactile browsing in a brick-and-mortar library. It's a tease, or more likely, a sales hook. I think that's far more likely to be the way people would use Google to track down print copies - consistent with Google's current ad-based revenue structure.
But a library is not a retail space - it is an open door to knowledge, a highway with no tolls. How can we reinvent this in networked digital space?
Posted by ben vershbow on January 9, 2005 9:52 PM
tags: Libraries, Search and the Web
dave munger on January 10, 2005 6:37 AM:
Inside-the-book browsing is a sad echo of actual tactile browsing in a brick-and-mortar library.
Yes, this is true. However, the reverse can also be said: Inside-the-library searching is a sad echo of actual online searching in Google library.
What we are talking about is reconciling the tactile world of the physical library with the data-driven world of the virtual library.
I have found that when searching for books that the card catalog is little better than a suggestion list. Much better to actually visit the stacks and see what's there: the tactile benefits of a real library. Searching online is different: often you can find exactly what you want.
I'm not saying there's no point in having a real library; I'm saying there's certainly a point in digitizing that information as well.
ben vershbow on January 10, 2005 6:54 AM:
Absolutely. But digitization should be more than just a means of leveraging print. Digitization is the main point. I think we agree on this.
dave munger on January 10, 2005 8:39 AM:
I couldn't agree more. Another interesting twist on the Google project is that the libraries also retain the rights for the digital information Google creates. Perhaps what the libraries do with this information will ultimately be more important than what Google does. Surely "leveraging print" is exactly what Google intends to do.
dave munger on January 10, 2005 9:52 AM:
Ben, I'm beginning to wonder if our discussion, spread across two different blogs, is not as satisfying as it could be because of different assumptions we're making. You're claiming that Google has tremendous potential because it can not only offer the searchability of a digital resource, but also replicate the best properties of a library. I'm arguing that digital resources are going to be the wave of the future, but they will never be the same as a physical library.
Perhaps the point is this: just because it's possible to replicate a physical library in a digital space doesn't mean that will happen (or even that it should).
Similarly, we can easily imagine e-books that attempt to replicate physical books. But is this the way we'll want to parse information in a digital world?
I think this is what Gary Frost was touching on in his posts a few days ago. I don't agree that books in the future will be like cell phones (the form factor is simply too small), but the economic model of books might be similar. Some people will want the deluxe models, with all the bells and whistles: an extra fancy ebook reader, with archiving and print options. Others will prefer to pay as they go, buying disposable etexts for a beach vacation. Still others will take a middle road: some sort of subscription model, almost like a serial novel.
These different economic models will shape the texts we create as well. Perhaps consumers with deluxe models will actually demand more comprehensive texts than what is currently available in books, but the subscribers will be looking for shorter texts, something they can read front-to-back over the course of a commute to work.
Finally, as I've said on my blog, I believe most scholarly texts will eventually seek to circumvent the economic models altogether. This would mean that Google Library might end up being irrelevant to scholarly research. We would end up in a bizarre reversal, where "libraries" are places to find commercial texts, and the plain old Internet is where you find serious academic research.
Bob Stein on January 10, 2005 10:56 AM:
clearly online "libraries" are in their infancy and it's very hard to project how they will develop over time . . .
there are two aspects however of brick and mortar libraries that will need to be part of the online versions as they evolve. one is
serendipity -- browsing the stacks and discovering something wonderful you weren't looking for. the other is the social aspect of the library -- ranging from specific task-related help from librarians and friends to much vaguer stuff, like seeing someone across the table and daydreaming . . .
dave munger on January 10, 2005 11:28 AM:
Bob, unfortunately, I think those are precisely the things that will disappear from digital libraries. Think of the rise of the private bath. Did ancient Romans wonder how to preserve the social aspects of their great public baths? I suspect they did, but eventually the convenience of a private bath outweighed these social factors, and today the public bath is a footnote in history.
dave munger on January 10, 2005 11:35 AM:
I should also add that the "serendipity" of a public library is an artifact of the subject-based cataloging system. If books were sorted alphabetically by author, I suspect there would be much less of this.
Of course, there are still some hierarchical indexes of the World Wide Web, but as search engines improve, I at least find myself using the hierarchical indexes less and less. Even Yahoo's once-vaunted subject index is now buried at the bottom of the page.
Wikipedia attempts to reproduce some of that serendipity with the "random page" link on its home page, but even that is not the same as the effect of wandering the stacks in the library, which are subject based.
Perhaps links are the ultimate digital serendipity; you never know where they are going to take you. But people link to the same sources over and over again out of habit. After a while, you can almost predict where a link will take you even before clicking on it.
Gary Frost on January 10, 2005 11:00 PM:
The distinction between print browsing and electronic searching goes somewhere.
Books tend to distill meaning while electronic resources tend to dilute meaning. When we browse physical books we encounter adjoining works that are complete in themselves and the diversion is invigorating because we sense the displacement into another coherent discipline or story. Electronic searches lack this "digital" displacement. Instead the process of discovery tends to continue itself without any assurance that coherency will emerge.
The assumption that search engines assist research and make it more efficient should be considered from the perspective of browsing. The larger the universe of results, the more dilute the search becomes. And there is another anomaly. Turn around and note the books on your bookshelf. Note that they record your act of shelf arrangement; inter positioning conceptual works in a relationship unique in the universe. This potent arrange ability of books will never be parsed by algorithm. This is very suggestive.
michael lew on January 12, 2005 12:48 AM:
the opinion of Umberto Eco on the future of libraries and books.