As a brief follow-up to my post last week about the state of scholarly publishing, I want to highlight this recent article in The New York Times, “Scan This Book!” by Kevin Kelly, who is on the staff at Wired magazine.

He conjures up the same image as Janet H. Murray, of “the great library at Alexandria,” and laments that “for 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding further into the infinite future.”

But when Murray predicted the inevitable advent of the universal library nearly a decade ago, she acknowledged some complicating factors, such as consumer taste and market forces. Kelly makes similar predictions about the inevitability of absolute digitization: “The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the universal library as you might add more words to a long story.”

But he won’t admit the validity of any real barriers, be they economic, social, or even legal. He writes, “The great continent of orphan works, the 25 million older books born analog and caught between the law and users, will be scanned. Whether this vast mountain of dark books is scanned by Google, the Library of Congress, the Chinese or by readers themselves, it will be scanned well before its legal status is resolved simply because technology makes it so easy to do and so valuable when done. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.”

Thus, he concludes, “On this screen, now visible to one billion people on earth, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge.” I think Kelly is correct about the power of search and its implications for new depth and complexity with respect to learning. I don’t think he’s right that such a digital “Tower of Babel” project is inevitable, at least in the sense that all books will be digital and they will also be completely open access.

Intellectual property laws are created to protect the economic incentive for people to create things. New technology isn’t going to suddenly replace the need for people to be paid for what they make. Kelly points to the paradigm in the sciences as an alternative, but as I noted earlier, the strange economics of scientific publishing is created in large part because of the widespread dependence on subsidization by the government. The same publishing paradigm simply won’t work for commercial and popular publications.


  • Dale Milne

    As Chinese farmer-poets did in ages long gone, farming by the sweat of their brow in summer, and philosphizing in winter, I suspect the New Humanity will earn their bread by the sweat of their brawn under the sun, and in their free time by the light of the moon create works of art, poetry and music for the love of it rather than as mercenaries. No one will mind. It will seem natural. It will be the right thing to do. Art, beauty and knowledge (“scientific” and otherwise) are meant to be free to the world.