Librarian of Congress James Billington is proposing a World Digital Library project that will provide free access to millions of important documents from around the world.
Google is donating $3 million to the cause. Others will join it. The American Memory project from the Library of Congress already provides free access to millions of pages of American history content.
In 1990 I co-founded a CD ROM publishing company. Our stated mission was to “identify the most important books in every field of human knowledge and to make them available on CD ROM.”
We built a good little company but we barely made a dent in digitizing the world’s store of knowledge.
Just 15 years later it is clear that virtually all the books ever written will soon be digitized and made available on the World Wide Web.
Google Print, the Open Content Alliance (involving the Internet Archive, Yahoo and Microsoft, among others), the Million Book Project, and now the World Digital Library are devoting millions of dollars to the cause.
In 1988 I heard then BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland give a brilliant speech to the BYU Faculty about gathering truth. (His talk inspired what our CD ROM company tried to do two years later.)
He made a great point in that speech which seems even more important now, as we approach a world where millions of books are freely available to anyone.
“[What] the present world needs more than ever before, are those educated, and spiritual, and wise who will sort, sift, prioritize, integrate, give some sense of wholeness, some spirit of connectedness to great eternal truths. . . . The watchmen on the tower cry out for those who will integrate, coalesce, clarify, give both order and rank to important human knowledge.”
Will future generations be better off than previous ones just because with a few clicks we can read the words from any book ever published?
Will access to near infinite knowledge bring the world peace and prosperity?
James Billington suggests that “Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms. It is legitimate and in our nation’s interest that the new technology be used internationally, both by the private sector to promote economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic institutions.”
I like the concepts he sets forth. But what if people don’t use these resources? (Maybe they will be too addicted to online games such as Everquest or Cyworld to notice that the world’s knowledge is now available free of charge.) Or what if they use them, but they spend the majority of their time with less important texts?
Mark Twain said, “He who does not read good books has no advantage over he who cannot read them.” (I first saw this quote in the humanities building at BYU in the 1980s, on a t-shirt!)
Henry David Thoreau said, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”
How will the world know which of the millions of books are actually the best?
We must have, as Jeffrey Holland said, individuals who are “educated, spiritual and wise” who will “sort and sift and prioritize” the knowledge found in those millions of books.
Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List, announced recently that he plans to launch a “wisdom of the crowds” approach to news journalism.
I believe similar projects will be launched on the heels of all these book digitization projects. But a serious problem occurs if the crowds are not “educated, spiritual and wise.”
If the crowds who rate and prioritize the books are “ignorant, sensual, and foolish” instead of “educated, spiritual and wise” then the books that get promoted will not be the “best books in every field” but will be the equivalent of modern fast food — appealing but not satisfying and definitely not healthy.
Isaiah, perhaps the most quoted of all ancient prophets, describes what happens when people close their eyes to what true prophets say and to the knowledge contained in the most important books. He says that fall into a “deep sleep” and they fight against what is good. And that is never satisfying:
“It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite”
Isaiah talked about the importance of a single book that would come forth that would bring people out of darkness and increase their joy.
So which of the millions of books ever written can do this? Which are the most important books for people young and old to read, to study, and to contemplate? Which books contain truth that can lead to true happiness and to peace and prosperity?
Which books in every field of human knowledge contain the most truth and will help someone advance in his/her chosen field? And which are basically a waste of time?
I have about 3,000 books in my personal library.
A few have changed my life (most especially, “Love is the Killer App” by Tim Sanders.) A few have dramatically increased my business knowledge and success (such as “Net.gain” and “Designing Web Usability”). And a few have given me tremendous insights into how the world works (such as “Linked”.)
Some have given me heroes and role models that I want to pattern my life after. (“Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky made me want to live a life of goodness and purity like Alyosha.)
But many of the books have not been worth the time I took to read them.
I am anxious to find a way to tap into the wisdom of the “educated, spiritual, and wise” crowds (I hope there are enough people like that to constitute a crowd!) and to empower them to provide the world with prioritized access to the most important human knowledge.
I don’t think there should ever be a single reading list for everyone. Every individual has different talents and interests. So there should be thousands of reading lists compiled through the suggestions of the happiest and most successful people alive.
I look forward to collaborating with others on this project.
P.S. By the way, I happen to know the book that Isaiah was referring to. If you want a free copy, just send me an email (paulballenATyahoo.com) with your name and mailing address, and I’ll ship one out to you.