By KEVIN KELLY
The New York Times
May 14, 2006
In several dozen nondescript office buildings around the world,
thousands of hourly workers bend over table-top scanners and haul
dusty books into high-tech scanning booths. They are assembling the
universal library page by page.
The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and
present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all
languages. It is a familiar hope, in part because long ago we briefly
built such a library. The great library at Alexandria, constructed
around 300 B.C., was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in
the known world. At one time or another, the library held about half a
million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 and 70 percent of
all books in existence then.
But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all
knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed. Since then,
the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to
contain it. For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with
other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes
and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding
further into the infinite future.
Until now. When Google announced in December 2004 that it would
digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make
their contents searchable, the promise of a universal library was
resurrected. Indeed, the explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing
to everything in one decade, has encouraged us to believe in the
impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all
knowledge really be within our grasp?
Brewster Kahle, an archivist overseeing another scanning project, says
that the universal library is now within reach. "This is our chance to
one-up the Greeks!" he shouts. "It is really possible with the
technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of
humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement
remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon." And unlike
the libraries of old, which were restricted to the elite, this library
would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person.
But the technology that will bring us a planetary source of all
written material will also, in the same gesture, transform the nature
of what we now call the book and the libraries that hold them. The
universal library and its "books" will be unlike any library or books
we have known. Pushing us rapidly toward that Eden of everything, and
away from the paradigm of the physical paper tome, is the hot
technology of the search engine.