[iDC] Re: Everything is Miscellaneous

Rick Prelinger rick at archive.org
Sat Jul 7 11:27:56 EDT 2007

In discussions about David Weinberger's interesting book I'm often struck by the  disconnects between examples cited and actual experience.  For instance, Trebor states:

>In 1999 the BBC started spending $100 million a year to convert its archived
>material into digital format, making it available for reuse.

Reuse by whom?  The suggestion is that digitization suddenly opens up access to collections.  This is possible, but far from inevitable.  Copyright, license agreements, union contracts and a licensing-oriented culture restrict reuse of BBC materials to those willing to pay hefty license fees.  But unrestricted items in their collections have always been available for licensing and reuse; when it's time to make a copy, the film or tape goes to the lab for duplication.  In any case, if the implication is that the world is going to be able to reuse BBC collections, this is not so. 

With regard to Google's monumental book digitization project, Trebor's review repeats two widely-held misconceptions:

>In similar ways,
>the digitization of books by Google on a massive scale goes far beyond
>preservation: it allows for any piece of content from a book to be placed next
>to any other, which makes for a new layer of meaning that is constructed in
>between short pieces of texts. It reinforces a type of clip or quotation
culture where de-contextualized snippets are mixed up at free will.

But Google is digitizing for access, not preservation.  Their scans are low-grade copies of library books that are then OCRed to build an index which I believe in time will be a great tool and a step forward for our culture.  But librarians and archivists see preservation very differently; I won't go into the details, but those interested can see a discussion here: http://www.clir.org/PUBS/reports/arcrept/arcrept.html. If libraries want to preserve their books digitally, they'll have to scan them all over again, while observing higher QA standards and safeguarding the bits in trusted, redundant repositories.

I'm also struck by the statement that Google's book digitization "allows for any piece of content from a book to be placed next to any other."  Since Google Book Search displays book pages within its proprietary web-based reader, the only way I know how to do this is to open up two browser windows on a large screen so that they face one another.  And since you're looking at graphics, you can't cut and paste.  Last week Google announced they were opening access to the text layer of their public domain books, but these are still displayed within a reader so you see only a single page of text at a time.  (And since Google knows I'm presently in Spain, they won't show me any books that are in the public domain in the US; even Shakespeare appears in snippet view.)  This hardly "reinforces a type of clip or quotation culture where de-contextualized snippers are mixed up at free will."

I know this sounds like harping, but I think it speaks to Weinberger's statement that "Put simply, the owners of information no longer own the organization of information."  In fact, many of the largest owners (and gatherers) of information are banking on doing just that.  There's no public API into Google Book Search.  And the future of services like YouTube depend on their being able to display licensable and ad-supported content as and when they think it will result in a billable event.  If "miscellaneousness" conflicts with a business model that rides on control, no matter how poorly conceived, control will win out every time.



Rick Prelinger
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