Universal Access to All Knowledge

I’ve never met Brewster Kahle, inventor of WAIS, co-founder of Thinking Machines, founder of Alexa and digital librarian for the Internet Archive. But I’ve watched his contributions over the years and have admired his Vannevar Bush-like vision. (If you have never read the 1945 Atlantic Monthly article by Vannevar Bush titled “As We May Think”, you’re missing out on the original “access to all knowledge” brainstorm.)

I recently bought a biography of Bush entitled “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century” but haven’t read it yet.

Brewster spoke earlier this month at the Library of Congress on the topic of universal access to all knowledge. I am planning to watch the video of his lecture.

I played around with some new features of the Internet Archive the other day and was very impressed that they not only index web pages but they also index audio and video recordings. For example, here are the results of a search for “roosevelt” in the presidential recordings media type.

Google may have the means (and the business model to sustain it) to do more digitization of the world’s knowledge than all other efforts combined, but the efforts preceding it, like Michael Hart’s Project Gutenburg, a 20-year effort to create free digital version of all public domain texts, should be warmly regarded.

(When Google announced its massive scanning project in five major libraries I wanted my next blog headline to read “Goodbye Project Gutenberg; Hello Project Googleberg” but I didn’t get around to it.)

I have never been more excited about the prospect of knowledge flooding the earth than now, with this Google announcement. And I’m not worried, as some are, about information overload.

To me, public domain content is a lot like open source software. The more freely available content or code there is, the more opportunity there is for companies to add value to the raw content — like writing application software on top of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack which is available for free.

In the case of the full text of millions of books, imagine that kinds of search engines and software that can be built on top of the freely available text.

The opportunity for individuals to build software or services around the knowledge core has never been greater. As open source matures and as these massive content projects proceed, knowledge workers and entrepreneurs will have more powerful tools at their fingertips than ever before.

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