What Do You Do with a Million Books? (20 Mar 2006)
The Greek historian Herodotus has the Athenian sage Solon estimate the lifetime of a human being at c. 26,250 days. If we could read a book on each of those days, it would take almost forty lifetimes to work through every volume in a single million book library. The continuous tradition of written European literature that began with the Iliad and Odyssey in the eighth century BCE is itself little more than a million days old. While libraries that contain more than one million items are not unusual, print libraries never possessed a million books of use to any one reader. The great libraries that took shape in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were meta-structures, whose catalogues and finding aids allowed readers to create their own customized collections, building on the fixed classification schemes and disciplinary structures that took shape in the nineteenth century.
The digital libraries of the early twenty-first century can be searched and their contents transmitted around the world. They can contain time-based media, images, quantitative data, and a far richer array of content than print, with visualization technologies blurring the boundaries between library and museum. But our digital libraries remain filled with digital incunabula – digital objects whose form remains firmly rooted in traditions of print, with HTML and PDF largely mimicking the limitations of their print predecessors.
Vast collections based on image books – raw digital pictures of books with searchable but uncorrected text from OCR – could arguably retard our long-term progress, reinforcing the hegemony of structures that evolved to minimize the challenges of a world where paper was the only medium of distribution and where humans alone could read.1 Already the books in a digital library are beginning to read one another and to confer among themselves before creating a new synthetic document for review by their human readers.Add this article to Del.icio.us