World Digital Library

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. :)

5 Comments

  1. Rick

    Paul,
    What a great blog on one of the most important topics of our day. You were clearly ahead of the curve when you launched Infobase. There will be many opportunities driven by this Digital Library project. Itâ

  2. I also love what I can learn about a book from Amazon, but I think the important point you make Paul, is finding the wisdom of the “educated, spiritual, and wise” as opposed to the “ignorant, sensual, and foolish.”

    What if Amazon were to introduce some sort of trust metric to its rankings. So say user A rates a given book at a 5, but user B rates it at a 2. I’d like to see a system on Amazon that lets me say – I trust user B at a level 5, but user A at only a level 2, and then let Amazon rank its recommendations for me accordingly. Thus, I can detemine who among Amazon users I feel are “educated, spiritual, and wise” and trust their ratings accordingly.

    That way, even if the majority of folks rate a trashy book at a 5, the people I trust would likely rate it much lower, if rating it at all. I love the Holland quote. Today’s Internet technologies seem perfectly poised to provide just what he suggests. 1988(!) Wow, he was ahead of his time :-).

  3. Joe M

    SirsiDynix (library management software vendors) had a webcast “Google Inc. and Libraries: Our Common Future” earlier this month, Link:
    http://www.dynix.com/institute/seminar/index.asp?sem=20051111
    My other thoughts around this topic:
    – An observation from library trends was how electronic subscriptions was upsetting the static “card catalog” metaphor of of the current library management systems.
    – It would be interesting to further extrapolate how these systems would integrate and involve partners like google, even as libraries look for differentiation
    – Warburg Pincus has a great tech paper on SOA. It would be interesting to evaluate that architecture in context of the Library’s Federated model.
    – It would be interesting to consider how the “reading list” is part of an individuals Acquisition” as it entails not only resource of money, but more importantly the resource of time. How then does this play into the library versus google differentiation, w.r.t Electronic subscriptions?

  4. Insightful essay, Paul. Thanks for roping in the speech by Pres. Holland. Dan Hanks, nice idea. Rating raters would
    substantially improve Amazon’s review mechanisms. I often find that Amazon recommends books on topics of interest to
    me but whose premises and conclusions are diametrically opposed to principles (physical, economic, social, faith-oriented)
    for which I have strong evidence. I’m relatively new to blogs, but my impression is that BlogRolls play an implicit
    “rating raters” function. Aggregating the network implicit in BlogRoll links is something that a Google or other crawler
    can do easily — mining Blogs for book reviews would be an external-to-Amazon way to proceed. I think we have an idea
    here. My research area is Statistical Natural Language Processing — think of it as the nexus of data mining, machine
    learning, statistical pattern recognition, and linguistics (even some signal processing). We could spot book reviews,
    classify their sentiment (thumbs up or thumbs down) based on the verbiage, and begin to automate the ranking. Shall we
    take this somewhere?

    Paul, thank you for sharing your ideas in a blog form. Having followed your recommendation, I checked out “Love is the
    Killer App” on Amazon. It became immediately clear that blogging is one way of expressing love, in the parlance of the
    author. You have learned the lesson well, it would seem.

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