Universal library.

Saturday, October 25th, 2003

Whether Amazon’s new “Search Inside the Book” feature will really change Life, the Universe and Everything (or at least, the way knowledge is archived and accessed) remains to be seen. For now, this Wired article by Gary Wolf does a good job of explaining what is currently possible and speculating on what could be possible in years to come: books on demand; books never going “out of print”; the sum of the world’s literary output archived for as long as the digital storage medium lasts and (theoretically, anyway) available to anyone, anywhere in the world.

The article also addresses the fact that books are more than just repositories of information. Books are books, physical objects that have their own life and their own signifance. As Wolf writes:

“Books are an ancient and proven medium. Their physical form inspires passion…[but] even as the Internet has revived hope of a universal library and Google seems to promise an answer to every query, books have remained a dark region in the universe of information. We want books to be as accessible and searchable as the Web. On the other hand, we still want them to be books.”

With its search feature, Amazon may have stumbled upon a resolution to this dilemma. Amazon isn’t offering e-books; it’s offering people the ability to digitally pinpoint information in physical books (which they will then, presumably, buy from Amazon). Gary Wolf hits the nail on the head when he says, “The magic of the archive lies in the assumption that physical books are irreplaceable. The electronic text is simply an enhancement of the physical object.”

This is the side of the Information Age that I simply adore.


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