Books Without Borders

Books represent the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humans in their interactions with nature, the cosmos and each other. Web advocates, science fiction writers and futurists have all predicted that the Web will replace the book with multimedia, interactive, individualized alternatives. Some evidence certainly indicates that for many young people, learning and entertainment can be better accomplished through more active approaches. While the production and sale of books has continued to expand in the Web environment and while digitizing books has generally increased sales for some publishers, such as the National Academies Press, generation 2025 will expect more than simple text on paper.

A first step toward fulfilling generation 2025’s desires has been to free books from their place locations by digitizing them. In Carnegie Mellon University’s Million Book Project, a Chinese-U.S. partnership has digitized 1,023,495 books while an Indian-U.S. partnership has done 350,000 and the Egyptians 22,000. Funded by the National Science Foundation in 2001, the Million Book Project sought to work through technical, logistical and legal issues while digitizing a million books as a start to making all content available digitally. The government of India allocated $25 million a year for machine translation research and infrastructure, and the Chinese government provided $8.46 million over three years for the project. Million Book Project directors, Raj Reddy, Michael Shamos, Jaime Carbonell and I, believe that free-to-read content will advance learning worldwide. Simultaneously, Google’s Book Search Library Project is actively digitizing the University of Michigan’s 7-million-volume collection, Brewster Kahle’s Open Content Alliance is working on books and manuscript materials, and Microsoft has just announced a new book reader called eBook Reader.

A second step toward satisfying the students of 2025 will require recalibrating the balance between the rights of the creator and the public good in the areas of copyright and fair use of intellectual property, especially for scholarly materials. Currently, national copyright laws, somewhat regularized through the World Intellectual Property Organization, serve as an enormous brake on digitization efforts, in the United States, books are in copyright for the life of the author plus 75 years, and only books published before 1923 can be assumed to be out of copyright. Many other countries have similar laws, although in China, the government passed a new law allowing the digitization of Chinese copyrighted books for students at universities, an action that will certainly provide a competitive advantage for learning there. While a book often involves its own copyright and a network of other rights for quotations and illustrations, the future multimedia, interactive Web-based book, like a current audio book or movie, will be a more complex piece of intellectual property.

A third step must involve discerning new business models for new publishing ventures. Scholarly authors are rewarded for their publications, which both enhance their reputations among their peers and earn them merit raises and more favorable conditions of employment. Novelists, poets, composers and other creators must be compensated for their efforts through the sale of their works. To cover publishing costs and compensate their executives and stockholders, publishers currently absorb most of the profits from the creators’ efforts, but the Web environment is demonstrating that creators can connect with their audiences with greatly reduced overheads. Some mechanisms, such as “micropayments” (small payments for limited uses), will develop to allow consumers to compensate creators directly.

A fourth step will involve quality assurance. As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon often noted, human attention is the scarce resource, and the 2025 reader will have no more time than the reader of 2005. The filters currently provided by scholarly societies, publishers and reviewers will have to be retained in some other format because easy access to the Web will multiply the already overwhelming amount of content available. Already, social networking tools that direct attention toward like materials are developing rapidly. Online customer reviews and star ratings help readers locate interesting materials, but talking with other readers with like tastes is still the most reliable way to find a new great book to read—though, now, that other reader may be traveling between Sri Lanka and Bangkok or studying in Sweden. Readers in this global, borderless community will still continue to rely on each other for advice.

Some believe that when students cease to sit quietly and pore through the great print works, creativity, learning and progress will halt. Yet, university professors continue to report that students are just as bright, capable and hard-working as ever. But these students demand more—the convenience of Web access to materials; laws that make sense of the technologies they use; business models, such as iTunes, that fit their styles; and networks that direct them to their preferences. The current generation is preparing to create the content that will teach and entertain its successor generation. And the result, I believe, will be more than simple text on paper.

About the Author

Gloriana St. Clair

Gloriana St. Clair is the Dean of University of Libraries at Carnegie Mellon University. She has a master’s in library science from the University of California, Berkeley; a doctorate in literature from the University of Oklahoma; and a master’s in business administration from the University of Texas, San Antonio.

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