Digitize the World

By Deane Barker on November 26, 2003

The Great Library of Amazonia: Here’s a fantastic article about multiple efforts to catalog all of humankind’s published knowledge, from Amazon’s Search Inside the Book to Project Gutenberg to the Internet Archive. This stuff gives me goosebumps.

The more specific the search, the more rewarding the experience. For instance, I’ve recently become interested in Boss Tweed, New York’s most famous pillager of public money. Manber types “Boss Tweed” into his search engine. Out pop a few books with Boss Tweed in the title. But the more intriguing results come from deep within books I never would have thought to check: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole; American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis; Forever: A Novel, by Pete Hamill. I immediately recognize the power of the archive to make connections hitherto unseen. As the number of searchable books increases, it will become possible to trace the appearance of people and events in published literature and to follow the most digressive pathways of our collective intellectual life.

There was another quote that smacked me upside the head. Like most geeks, I don’t want to think that the Internet is anything other than a wonderful benefit to society, but this is a good point:

“Seventy-one percent of college students use the Internet as their research tool of first resort,” he says, citing figures from a 2001 PEW Internet Study. “Personally, I think this number is low. For most students today, if something is not on the Net, it doesn’t exist.”

And yet most books are not on the Net. This means that students, among others, are blind to the most important artifacts of human knowledge. For many students, the Internet actually contracts the universe of knowledge, because it makes the most casual and ephemeral sources the most accessible, while ignoring the published books.

It’s tough to refute that most of the information on the Net is substantially shallower than that found in a library. So the Internet promotes access to the most shallow of resources.