Borges’ Dream

One of the earliest promises of a large-scale computer network was that it would make the dream of a digital library possible.  It seems as if that vision is slowly, hesitantly coming alive.

Those of us who are interested in issues of literacy and access to knowledge have been closely following the growth of what are called E-text (Electronic Text) projects.  The broad aim of these projects is to translate information from traditional paper media to electronic media to make such texts available over global computer networks.  The benefits of such a “translation” are enormous, both for the scholar and the individual.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these projects is their ability to preserve fragile documents that might otherwise be lost.  Printed paper is subject to numerous hazards, is difficult to reproduce and eventually deteriorates.  An Electronic book, however, can be reproduced at the push of a button and is exceptionally cheap to store.  At $.50 per Megabyte of magnetic storage media, it costs only a dollar to store 1,000 pages of text.  Since it is easy to copy electronic-texts it becomes unnecessary to physically ship books through the post, one has only to send a copy of the original (a perfect copy, no possibility of a generation loss unlike photocopies) over a network to the person who is interested in the content.

None of these things are new, many people have been aware of them for decades, but we are seeing a proliferation of such libraries only at the present time.  This is partly due to the increasing importance of computer networks in our society and the technological advances made over the past few years.  As computers and networks become ubiquitous it is only a matter of time before a large part of the knowledge now contained in, and constrained by, the shelves in our libraries will become mobile.

In an electronic library one would not be told “the book has been checked out”.  At an electronic book-store no book can be sold-out, no book can be out of print.  Yet these possibilities force us to ask other questions, specifically ones related to copyright.  If it is possible to make a perfect copy of a book by pushing one button, how is one to enforce copyright laws.  This is an important question and it is being tackled by publishers the world over as they experiment with solutions like encrypting the text or making it viewable only with software that would not permit copying.  Solutions will be found by those who have the greatest incentive to develop them, namely publishers.

Most E-Text projects today concentrate on books that are no longer protected by copyright, i.e. they are under public domain.  So one can find the complete works of William Shakespeare, Aesop’s Fables or Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” in digital libraries across the globe. Most of these libraries do not charge users access fees, in a sense it is not worth doing so.  Managing a fee-structure would probably cost too much.  Since these projects are largely run by volunteers and with the assistance of donations, there is no desire to earn revenue from them. In any case, translating a book to E-text is so cheap that it is not necessary to charge for access.

There are a number of problems with the vision of large scale digital libraries.  It is uncertain whether many people will make the transition from reading books printed on paper to those on viewed on screen.  There are concerns that large amounts of time spent in front of antiquated computer screens may be harmful to the eyes.  With the present level of computer technology it’s difficult to see how you could curl up in bed with a electronic book.

A particular concern today is the accessibility of E-Texts.  Some E-Text projects store books in one format and others decide to present them in others.  It is possible that some books may not be accessible to certain people because they lack the software necessary to view them.  It is possible that certain formats that are popular today (HTML for instance) may not be around forever and we wonder what will happen to E-Texts stored in those formats.  Hopefully tools will develop that will permit translation between different formats.

Some of these concerns might be invalidated as technological advances are made, others may not.  It is difficult to imagine a world without paper books (though this might just save our forests), and I for one will hold on to every volume I own.  What is perhaps more likely is that this medium will compliment the traditional paper media.  It certainly has many advantages, it is cheaper, easier to transport and copy and increases access to rare and out of print books.  One point that is often not made is that electronic books are accessible to disabled persons (such as the blind) while the printed page may not be.  These are all significant advantages and I do expect to see many more electronic texts in the future.

But perhaps the factor that will convince most of us of its superiority is the fact that students might be able to read books on computers for far less than it would cost to buy them.

More information on Electronic Texts, and links to various digital libraries can be found at

Computer Advocacy @ NYU

This post was originally published in the Washington Square News