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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Wednesday, May 24, 2006

    Only Connect: Books and e-Books; Publish and Search

    Richard Charkin of Macmillan leaves us in no doubt about the side of the mast his colours are pinned when he write in his blog:
    It is really a very strange world where those who are arrogant or mad enough to think they can build a 'perfect search engine (which) would be like the mind of God' (Google co-founder, Sergey Brin) are treated as cool and honourable and publishers such as Random House, Bloomsbury, Reed Elsevier, Blackwell, Macmillan etc are regarded as dinosaurs when they spend money and creativity developing new ways to support their authors and excite their readers. Go figure.
    Publishers, who discover, encourage, produce and distribute an author’s wit and wisdom are good; search engines (perfect or not) which simply find and promulgate existing wit and wisdom – notwithstanding the notion that search has a “transformative purpose” – are not. The debate has surfaced again after Kevin Kelly wrote a long discursive piece in the New York Times magazine on May 14th: Scan This Book! – which, in a nutshell, came out in favour of digitising books to produce a library of libraries. Having run through the benefits of transforming “the very nature of what we now call books and libraries”, he pointed out that the situation now and for the imminent future is Books AND e-Books not Books OR e-Books: and not or – they will both continue to exist. The more obvious benefits for e-books listed are:
    • making available books to the billions of people worldwide who are “underbooked”
    • “no book will be an island” – hyperlinking and tagging will “cross-link, cluster, cite, extract, index, analyze, annotate, remix and reassemble”
    • individuals as well as librarians will be able to curate collections – virtual libraries of content from paragraph to entire books
    • searchable content improves on locating by catalogue card as the “data becomes the metadata” (cf. David Weinberger's keynote paper at Online Information 2005)
    There follows a debate about copyright in which it is suggested that whereas copyright once existed to protect personal rights, it now exists predominantly to “protect a threatened business model”. Dangerous stuff!
    So dangerous, indeed, that no lesser person than author John Updike took to the podium at BookExpo America to decry “Kelly's notion that authors who no longer got paid for copies of their work could profit from it by selling ‘performances’ or ‘access to the creator’” as well as most of the Kelly article. He went on – as reported in WashingtonPost.com:
    “Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of ‘information’ on the Web, books traditionally have edges … the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets. … So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.”
    Bob Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer, introduced this with:
    “The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.”
    Speaking as a member of the liberati (by which I mean the library and information community rather than the liberated. No strike that, I mean both!), I can see both points of view. Kelly goes too far in suggesting that authors can make money from performances rather than copy – but then he is styled as the ‘senior maverick’ at Wired magazine – which is why I went into some detail about his article; while the literati stance: “e-publish and be dammed” is as extreme. Search adds value to content, and is certainly a powerful tool for publicity. Much of the Kelly article highlights real advantages for society and it is foolhardy to suppose that these will only be gained at the expense of real books.

    Paper-based books will neither vanish from shelves nor cease production. They will endure.

    e-Books will flourish and serve a parallel purpose. e-Books will empower both authors and readers through granular, ‘Web 2.0’ access facilities.

    Search, while it will never be like the mind of God, will join with digitization projects to provide an unrivalled access to texts which we can only guess at today.

    Copyright, on which I have only touched but which is dealt with at length by Kelly, will continue to protect authors’ rights but should not be used to protect revenue and business models.

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