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January 12, 2005 / jnolen

A Splendor of Letters; or, the Library of the Future

I read Nicholas Basbanes’s A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World over the break. I know, it's a decidedly non-techy subject. But in the immediate aftermath of the Google Library Initiative it provoked some interesting thoughts.

A book has three distinct aspects: the physical artifact, the content it contains and (recalling what I said here,) the accretion of commentary and criticism that collects around around the other two parts. We need to find a way to preserve and make simultaneously accessible all three aspects of the book.

Google is an ideal place to integrate the second and the third aspects. Criticism is all about linking. [Actually, there is probably a whole body of work about this issue in the original literature on HyperText. But I haven’t read any of that. Allen has, maybe he can comment.]

As a matter of fact, I’ve seen people complain that book texts won’t have hyperlinks in them, therefore PageRank can’t work. They go on to say that as people start linking into the book’s pages, then Google will start to build page rank data. That’s true, but there is an entire apparatus of links already built into most books: tables of contents, indices, footnotes, bibliographies. Google needs to find a way to link that data up as they’re scanning the works. But imagine if you could link directly to the source of a quote in one book just by clicking the footnote — it’s a researcher’s dream.

But it’s a hard challenge. I’m not even sure how I would propose to solve it technically. But maybe it doesn’t have to be solved technically — why can’t Google harness power of the community? Offer us a way to edit the book pages wiki-style in order to add links between and within books, but don’t allow the alteration of content. Perhaps something like Flickr’s annotations? And even better — you can add trackback-style reverse-linking. Physical books could only reference the past. This would allow texts to reference the future — giving us another layer of data that would have been otherwise impossible.

There is so much potential here. I certainly hope someone at Google is thinking about these questions. And I hope Google’s good-will and finances last long enough to make this a reality.

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