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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Chapter Sixty-One, in which Knowledge is truly shared

And now, back to the subject of Google.

If you have just tuned in, Chapter Forty-Six offered a rousing defense, embellished with gratuitous sex and violence, of Google's plans to digitize books. The thoughts of Your Bibliothecary then were on one's enhanced abilities to search and find information one is looking for.

While casually browsing Anirvan's Bookfinder Journal, we followed some binary breadcrumbs and arrived at a discussion of metadata by David Weinberger. What is metadata? Basically, it refers to the way we organize information such as books. Read the entire article if you are interested, but it matters little to our point here.

With only a passing mention, and a brief follow-up at the end, Weinberger notes what we now believe could be the most important benefit of a complete digitization of all books. If this is not in Google's plans, it needs to be.

Imagine Google has digitized a book Tiresias has written about farm implements. A student in Estonia searches for some keywords, and he is sent to the relevant snippet from Tiresias' book. As we understand the program now, the student will also find a link to be able to purchase Tiresias' book if he needs more information from it.

Let's say he acquires this book, and finds it lacking some important information, information the student from Estonia possesses, but which Tiresias had been unable to obtain in his own research. The way the wheel spins now, the student from Estonia will write and publish his own book with more thorough information. Or perhaps he will contact Tiresias, who will then be able to publish a revised edition with the updated information. But what if the student was able to add comments and annotations to the complete digital text?

How amazing would it be for us to publish Chapter Sixty-One and then return to it four weeks later to find it has been fully annotated and duly expanded by everyone with an interest in the subject and access to the Internet?

This is how we see a true sharing of information. This is what Weinberger suggests is the cause of publisher's fears over Google's plan. The process needs refinement far beyond the simple "post and comment" routine of blogs, and perhaps the technology is not yet even available. But by this, everyone with knowledge on a subject can participate in the exchange of information, and the growth of knowledge will be at the speed of the digital age.

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