TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Crunching Metadata/What Google Print Tells us About Future of Books

Crunching Metadata/What Google Print Tells us About Future of Books

Monty Solomon (
Sun, 13 Nov 2005 16:20:05 -0500

By David Weinberger

IN RECENT MONTHS, we've heard that Google is digitizing the libraries
of several major universities and making the text searchable through
its Google Print search engine-bringing cries of copyright
infringement from publishers and author groups. Meanwhile, Microsoft
says it will provide online access to 100,000 books in the British
Library, and Amazon, which already sells digital versions of books,
will soon sell individual chapters, too. But despite the present focus
on who owns the digitized content of books, the more critical battle
for readers will be over how we manage the information about that
content-information that's known technically as metadata.

We've been managing book metadata basically the same way since
Callimachus cataloged the 400,000 scrolls in the Alexandrian Library
at the turn of the third century BC. Callimachus listed the library's
contents on scrolls, Medieval librarians used ledgers, and we use card
catalogs, now mostly electronic. But until information started moving
online, the basic strategy has been the same: Arrange the books one
way on the shelves, physically separate the metadata from them, and
arrange the metadata in convenient ways.

This technique works so well for organizing physical books that we've
long overlooked its basic limitation: Because books and their
metadata have, until recently, been physical objects, we've had to
pick one and only one way to order them in defined, stable ways. When
Melvil Dewey introduced the Dewey decimal classification system in
1876, it was an advance because it shelved books by topic, making the
library's floor plan into a browsable representation of the order of
knowledge itself. But no one classification can represent everyone's
way of organizing the world. You may file a field guide to the birds
under natural history, while someone else files it under great
examples of the illustrative art and I file it under good eating.

The digital world makes it possible for the first time to escape this
limitation. Publishers, libraries, even readers can potentially
create as many classification schemes as we want. But to do this,
we'll need two things.

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