Reading books and saving trees
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #8

There are billions of words published and hidden in the archives of large libraries around the world. Every year, perhaps a hundred thousand new books on all imaginable subjects are released to the public. Millions of pages are printed in magazines, newspapers and journals on topics ranging from general information to mathematical arcana. Millions of trees die every year, and millions of pages age and wear out as they are continuously explored by our fingers. And all this, in the digital age!

As all other information migrates from printed paper to electronic pulses, as it did from stone to paper in another era, it is not surprising that organizations, principally libraries and researchers, are trying to make all written matter, from books to periodicals, available on-line. This ambitious goal, though natural for people who believe in a digital future, is accompanied by several problems, primarily dealing with the economics of publishing. Conventional economics will be turned upside down in the information age in any case, and publishers' woes are simply a part of the bigger problems. Of course, as far as readers are concerned, on-line libraries can bring only benefits, benefits, and more benefits.

Real books (its hard to think of electronic books as 'real') pose many problems to readers. They are analog, printed on paper. It's impossible to quickly search them for words, phrases or anything, really, whether it be the context of a favourite quotation that you look for, or a technical term, or the description of a rainstorm in the Himalayas. Indexing was invented to aid such tasks, but an index is inherently a poor guide to a text. An index must be explicitly created, and your searches are limited to what the author thought was important. Electronic books, on the other hand, can be searched for any pattern with almost immediate results.

Real books die; they wither away with age. While we may want to preserve our current literature by storing it in digital archives, that may be the only way for researchers to study ancient and medieval texts with yellowed pages brittle enough to collapse at a touch. A major on-going task in libraries with such archives is to scan and digitize these books, both for preservation, and to make them available to people around the world.

Currently there are quite a few projects to bring books into the future. Some of them are 'official.' The US Library of Congress is making multimedia archives including text of historical importance. The British Library, that has been offering 'search- and-photocopy' services to users worldwide and has graduated to the fax machine, it attempting to get licenses for electronic distribution. Both have been embroiled in issues of royalty payments, while the Bibliotheque de France has gone ahead despite economic considerations in putting up an on-line collection of 100,000 important works of this century. However, some 'unofficial' initiatives exist. Project Gutenberg already provides electronic versions of uncopyrighted classics (from Alice in Wonderland to Shakespeare) freely on the Internet, and the OnLine Book Initiative provides public documents.

The concerns of publishers are valid -- it's so easy to copy an electronic book, there's no way of enforcing payment or copyright. Of course, compared to conventional publishing costs, costs for an electronic book are negligible. Till these matters are resolved, the dream of any book a few keystrokes away is likely to remain just that -- a dream.

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