Sunday, December 14, 2003

Wired News: The Great Library of Amazonia

How was it possible to create a publicly accessible database from material whose ownership is so tangled? Amazon's solution is audacious: The company simply denies it has built an electronic library at all. "This is not an ebook project!" Manber says. And in a sense he is right. The archive is intentionally crippled. A search brings back not text, but pictures -- pictures of pages. You can find the page that responds to your query, read it on your screen, and browse a few pages backward and forward. But you cannot download, copy, or read the book from beginning to end. There is no way to link directly to any page of a book. If you want to read an extensive excerpt, you must turn to the physical volume -- which, of course, you can conveniently purchase from Amazon. Users will be asked to give their credit card number before looking at pages in the archive, and they won't be able to view more than a few thousand pages per month, or more than 20 percent of any single book.

Manber has built a powerful, even mind-boggling tool, then added powerful constraints. "The point is to help users find a book," says Manber, "not to make a new source of information."

Bezos is vehement on this point. He has sold publishers on the idea that digitizing hundreds of thousands of copyright books won't undermine the conventional bookselling business. "It is critical that this be understood as a way to get publishers and authors in contact with customers," he says in an interview at Amazon's Seattle headquarters. "We're perfectly aligned with these folks. Our goal is to sell more books!"

The original vision of a digital archive of all knowledge renounced paper volumes; physical books were seen as antiquated, like papyrus or clay tablets. But if electronic archives prove to raise the value of physical books, a new dream may replace the old one. After talking with Manber, I raise this question with Kevin Kelly, a Wired founding editor who spent part of his summer trying to establish a private cooperative library of digital books. The digital titles in Kelly's library would match the physical books on his shelf. "The idea of ebooks was to do away with paper," he says. "But really, you want to add dimensionality to a physical object rather than take it away. You want an enhanced physical world."

Thanks to Carol Phillips on the Larry Niven list for the link.

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