Coded gray.

Thursday 18 July 2002

Stacks of books & a zip disk

Pic of the day: This zip disk could easily hold all those books. So why are libraries still accumulations of paper?

Libraries and the future

Public libraries are the moral equivalent of Napster. Information wants to be dirt cheap.

Today I read in Scientific American that Stephen Jay Gould has published a thick book about evolution. Now, the man may be a rabid atheist, or so he comes across. But he is also one of the most knowledgeable men in his field, and a man with the courage to reshape his field when the terrain no longer even resembled the map. I may be unusual in this, but I am generally willing to learn from people I deeply disagree with. Opinions may distort our selection of facts; but with a minimum of scientific integrity, the facts will still remain facts. And I am convinced that Gould has far more than a minimum of integrity. I would like to read the book; but probably not more than once. I don't work with anything even remotely connected with evolution or paleontology; I'm just curious.

This is where libraries shine. You go to the library, you borrow the book, you read it, and you hand it back. Quick, easy, free. Except for one small detail: I live in Norway. Yes, we have libraries, good libraries, and plenty of them. But not for books in foreign languages. Actually, the larger libraries have quite a few books in English and some in German. But only the most popular - sometime in the past. And it seems to me that libraries are not being upgraded nearly fast enough. Norway is changing into a bilingual society (or tri-lingual if you count our two different versions of Norwegian) (and I'm not even considering Sami here) but our libraries are not following up. And they could probably not afford to, or even find the space if they could afford the books. The production of books is ironically still growing exponentially, even though we now have other means of distributing our knowledge.

Let me tell you what I would like. I would like a library on the Internet. A place where I could read any book for free, or for a marginal fee. Personally I would like to download an e-book, which would then self-destruct after a number of days. I am sure this would be easy to do. But the problem is, of course, that some smart guy would find a way to make them permanent. And we don't want that, do we?

***

Let us be honest: If the idea of libraries had been invented now, the copyright holders would have made sure that the idea remained just an idea. Letting people read a book without paying in full? No way! No cash, no service! We don't play shop. The authors need their money; the editors need their money; the publishers need their money; the print shops need their money; the retailers, even the truck drivers need their money. If the government wants everyone to be able to read the book, they should buy a copy for each. Or at least a stack of copies, which they hand out to the worthy needy. But since libraries have been around for thousands of years, they are accepted.

So far, e-books have not quite taken off. Oh, there are more of them every month. But they are still just a weak shadow of their physical counterparts. You publish a book in print, and then perhaps as an afterthought perhaps some years later you publish it as an e-book. Perhaps you can wring a few more dollars out of it.

But slowly we are moving towards a critical mass. It is still quite a way off, I'm afraid; but it is ahead. At some point, it will make sense to e-publish as a first choice. With no distribution costs after the book leaves the editor, the price can be set significantly lower. A library would be like a huge group rebate. Instead of selling a few books to a few people at full price, you sell lots of books to people who would mostly not have bought the book in the first place. But each of them will not pay much. The other elements from our libraries may or may not be present: Government or charity subsidies, a time limit, several people sharing the same book. Almost certainly the book would be available at the library quite a while later than at full price. But with a marginal production cost of $0, it would certainly make sense to spread it to the people eventually.

The question is: Will I live long enough to see this? I'm already 43... (Believe it or not!)


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