I finally got around to reading Nicholson Baker’s essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” and it’s… charming. Baker has a flair for idiosyncratic detail, which makes him a particularly perceptive and entertaining guide through the social and procedural byways of the Wikipedia mole hill. Of particular interest are his delvings into the early Wikipedia’s reliance on public domain reference works, most notably the famous 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: “The fragments from original sources persist like those stony bits of classical buildings incorporated in a medieval wall.”
Baker also has some smart things to say on the subject of vandalism:
Wikipedians see vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the prodigious success it has been without its demons.
This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard’s one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you’re going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): “HES A BIG STUPID HEAD.” James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons – ?a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.
Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals – ?up to a point – ?the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in, for example, replacing some of the article on Archimedes with this:
Archimedes is dead.
Other people will also die.
All hail chickens.
The Power Rangers say “Hi”
Even the interesting article on culture jamming has been hit a few times: “Culture jamming,” it said in May 2007, “is the act of jamming tons of cultures into 1 extremely hot room.”
This is welcome. Several leading American research libraries including the Boston Public and the Smithsonian have said no thanks to Google and Microsoft book digitization deals, opting instead for the more costly but less restrictive Open Content Alliance/Internet Archive program. The NY Times reports, and explains how private foundations like Sloan are funding some of the OCA partnerships.
In a rapid FOIA response, NARA has released the partnership agreement between them and Amazon’s CustomFlix (now CreateSpace) subsidiary. It’s downloadable here (I’m responsible for the poorly derived PDF). I’ll be reading and analyzing it soon.
Cornell is the 27th institution to join the Google Book Search Library Project, which digitizes books from major libraries and makes it possible for Internet users to search their collections online. Over the next six years, Cornell will provide Google with public domain and copyrighted holdings from its collections. If a work has no copyright restrictions, the full text will be available for online viewing. For books protected by copyright, users will just get the basic background (such as the book’s title and the author’s name), at most a few lines of text related to their search and information about where they can buy or borrow a book. Cornell University Library will work with Google to choose materials that complement the contributions of the project’s other partners. In addition to making the materials available through its online search service, Google will also provide Cornell with a digital copy of all the materials scanned, which will eventually be incorporated into the university’s own digital library.
The National Archives is at it again. After announcing in January its exclusive agreement with Footnote.com to digitize and offer priced access to millions of public domain historical records, NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) has now inked a deal with Amazon to distribute significant parts of its vast archival films collection commercially on DVD and online.
As reported by the Cumberland Times News:
The arrangement allows Amazon – and a subsidiary, CustomFlix Labs Inc. – to copy National Archives films and video onto DVDs, and sell them to the public via the Internet.
The Archives will initially make available its collection of Universal Newsreels, dating from 1920 to 1967. Thousands of other public-domain and government films will be made available later.
Included in the initial offerings are events as diverse as the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and footage of a youthful Fidel Castro after the communist revolution in Cuba. Newsreels that will become available later include coverage of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the end of World War II, and the royal wedding of Princess Margaret.
National Archives officials said the arrangement will greatly expand the availability of the collection. Previously, such films could only be viewed and recorded at the Archives facility in College Park.
No doubt NARA should doing everything in its power to digitize and increase access to its vaults, but locking materials down through commercial partnerships is no way to run a public trust. In a more commendable move, NARA put up a draft of another digitization/distribution agreement it has in the works, this one with the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), and they’ve even opened it up to public comment. They ought to do the same with the Amazon deal, and while they’re at it, offer less antiquated mechanisms for the public to make their voices heard. As it stands, comments on the GSU draft can be submitted in the following ways:
* postal mail
* hand delivery or courier
Hey, why not use CommentPress?
In his latest NY Times column, Edward Rothstein meditates on the vastness of the public domain and the pleasures of skimming it in simple digital editions prepared by B+R Samizdat Express. Since 1993 B+R, run by Barbara and Richard Seltzer of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, has been selling bundles of plain text (ASCII) digital literature scooped from Project Gutenberg and arranged by theme, genre or period into anthologies — first on floppy disc, and now on CD-ROM and DVD. It’s all stuff you can get for free by grazing the web’s various public domain repositories, but B+R have done the work of harvesting and sorting and they’ll ship these multi-shelf-spanning chunks to you for the price of a single print volume. Browse through nearly 200 book collections they’ve assembled so far and you’ll find packages ranging from “Anthropology and Myth” ($19), “Works of Guy de Maupassant” ($12), or “The American Revolution and Early Republic as witnessed by Mercy Warren and Others” ($19). Some works are provided in audio through text-to-voice conversion software.
As Rothstein notes, the bare-bones formatting and sheer volume of the anthologies makes these works hard to digest, but there’s no doubt B+R provides a valuable service, especially for people in places where books are scarce and net access unreliable. All in all, it’s an e-book advocate’s playground but more of a hallucinogenic head trip for the average reader — a way to sample vastness. It does make one’s wheels start to turn, though, on what other elucidating layers could be built on top of the vast murk of the digital library.
Windows Live Search Books, Microsoft’s answer to Google Book Search, is officially up and running and looks and feels pretty much the same as its nemesis. Being a Microsoft product, the interface is clunkier, and they have a bit of catching up to do in terms of navigation and search options. The one substantive difference is that Live Search is mostly limited to out-of-copyright books — i.e. pre-19231927 editions of public domain works. So the little they do have in there is fully accessible, with PDFs available for download. Like Google’s public domain books, however, the scans are of pretty poor quality, and not searchable. Readers point out that Microsoft, unlike Google, does in fact include a layer of low-quality but entirely searchable OCR text in its public domain downloads.
Google has added a few interface niceties to its Book Search book viewer. It now loads multiple pages at a time, giving readers the option of either scrolling down or paging through left to right. There’s also a full screen reading mode and a “more about this book” link taking you to a profile page with links to related titles plus references and citations from other books or from articles in Google Scholar. Also on the profile page is a searchable keyword cluster of high-incidence names or terms from the text.
Above is the in-copyright Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales by Melville, which contains only a limited preview of the text. You can also view the entire original 1856 edition of Piazza Tales as scanned from the Stanford Library. Public domain editions like this one can now be viewed with facing pages.
Still a conspicuous lack of any annotation or social reading tools.