The lost library
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents,” H.P. Lovecraft writes in “The Call of Cthulhu.” He continues:
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in is own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Lovecraft’s narrator would be relieved, I think, by the recent blog post by Tim Wu of The New Yorker on the sorry state of Google Books. As originally conceived, this was a project that could have had the most lasting impact of any development of the information revolution—an accurate, instantaneous search of all the books ever published, transforming every page into metadata. Instead, it became mired in a string of lawsuits, failed settlements, and legislative inaction, and it limps on as a shadow of what it might have been.
And while the result might have saved us from going mad in the Lovecraftian sense, it’s an incalculable loss to those of us who believe that we’d profit more than we’d suffer from that kind of universal interconnectedness. I don’t mean to minimize what Google has done: even in its stunted, incomplete form, this is still an amazing tool for scholars and curious characters of all kinds, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. I graduated from college a few years before comprehensive book search—initially developed by Amazon—was widely available, and when I contemplate the difference between the way I wrote my senior thesis and what would be possible now, it feels like an incomprehensible divide. It’s true that easy access to search results can be a mixed blessing: there’s a sense in which the process of digging in libraries and leafing through physical books for a clue purifies the researcher’s brain, preparing it to recognize and act upon that information when it sees it. This isn’t always the case when a search result is just one click away. But for those who have the patience to use a search as a starting point, or as a map of the territory, it’s precious beyond reckoning. Making it fully accessible should be the central intellectual project of our time. Instead, it has stalled, perhaps forever, as publishers and authors dicker over rights issues that pale in comparison to the benefits to be gained from global access to ideas.
I’m not trying to dismiss the fears of authors who are worried about the financial consequences of their work being available for free: these are valid concerns, and a solution that would wipe out any prospect of making a living from writing books—as it already threatens to do with journalism and criticism—would outweigh any possible gain. But if we just focus on books that are out of print and no longer profit any author or publisher in their present form, we’re talking about an enormous step forward. There’s no earthly reason why books that are currently impossible to buy should remain that way. Once something goes out of print, it should be fair game, at least until the copyright holder decides to do something about it. Inhibiting free access to books that can’t possibly do any good to their rights holders now, with an eye to some undefined future time when those rights might have value again, doesn’t help anybody. (If anything, a book that exists in searchable form is of greater potential value than a copy moldering unread on a library shelf.) Any solution to the problem of authors’ rights is inevitably going to be built out of countless compromises and workarounds, so we may as well approach it from a baseline of making everything accessible until we can figure out a way forward, rather than keeping these books out of sight until somebody legislates a solution. If nothing else, opening up those archives more fully would create real pressure to come up with a workable arrangement with authors. As it stands, it’s easier to do nothing.
And the fact that we’ve been waiting so long for an answer, even as Google, Amazon, and others devote their considerable resources to other forms of search, suggests that our priorities are fundamentally out of whack. Enabling a search of libraries is qualitatively different from doing the same for online content: instead of focusing solely on material that has been generated over the last few decades, and in which recent content outweighs the old by orders of magnitude, we’d be opening up the accumulated work of centuries. Not all of it is worth reading, any more than the vast majority of content produced every day deserves our time and attention, but ignoring that huge trove of information—thirty million books or more, with all their potential connections—is an act of appalling shortsightedness. A comprehensive search of books that were otherwise inaccessible, and which didn’t relegate most of the results to a snippet view for no discernible reason, would have a far greater impact on how we think, feel, and innovate than most of the technological projects that suck up money and regulatory attention. It might only appeal to a small slice of readers and researchers, but it happens to be a slice that is disproportionately likely to come up with works and ideas that affect the rest of us. But it requires a voice in its favor as loud as, or louder than, the writers and publishers who object to it. The books are there. They need to be searchable and readable. Anything else just doesn’t scan.