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The Future of Books March 28, 2007

Posted by breichen in civil society, innovation, Internet, Knowledge economy, Retail, Technology.

Employees of Google, the world’s largest web-search company, are scanning books into computers using secret methods at secret locations. Although Google has not released any official tallies, Daniel Clancy, the project’s top engineer, has given some clues as to what is actually going on. He has stated that Google has a contract with UC Berkeley requires them to digitize some 3,000 books a day for the university. Google also has contracts with 12 other universities and a number of independent publishers. Some conservative estimates are that Google will be digitizing books at a rate of 10 million per year. The total number of book titles said to exist is estimated at 65 million.

This is not the first project like this to exist. The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization created in 1996 by Brewster Kahle in the attempt to recreate a contemporary Library of Alexandria containing all public-domain texts and videos. Other organizations such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Yahoo! have all been scanning books but the scale to which Google is digitizing them is far greater than any of them.

As books go digital, new questions, both philosophical and commercial, arise. How, physically, will people read books in future? Will technology “unbind” books, as it has unbundled other media, such as music albums? Will reading habits change as a result? What happens when books are interlinked? And what is a book anyway?

The physical medium of books is unlikely to disappear in the digital age. Sony already sells an electronic book reader with about 12,000 titles available for download. Ron Hawkins, head of marketing for the Sony Reader, states that ““our mission is not to replace the print book.” You may be wondering then, who is going to be reading the millions of pages being digitized by Google and their competitors? The idea is that some people will read the books on a computer screen, some will use Google as a method for previewing books they are considering purchasing in paper form, and some will use the service to “look for specific snippets that interest them.”

Print media is already being diminished by digital replacements. Wikipedia for example, is a free online encyclopedia which is said to have severely reduced the sales of paper-bound alternatives. It is speculated that books which people would not ordinarily read all the way through or that require frequent updates will likely migrate to the digital medium. Other examples of print media being accessed in a digital format more and more frequently include dictionaries, cookbooks or recipes, telephone books/directories, etc.

It will be interesting to see how Google’s project turns out. I think it would be pretty amazing if you could get a digital copy of ANY book in the world just by searching Google Books. I don’t think, however, that paper-bound books are likely to disappear behind the shadow of the digital book.



1. Brian Mulligan - April 1, 2007

I knew that this would eventually happen after music went digital. Additionally, you can access any magazine, newspaper or any other print media along those lines. I think Google is just on the cutting edge of anything that is going to be new and great on the internet or in the digital world. I agree with Brendan about how it will not replace the paper-bound books, but will probably be used more in academia and the professional world. Nothing can replace reading a book on the warm day outside or in your bed at night.

2. Jordi - April 3, 2007

This is a fascinating example. There is a prevalent idea in economics about disruptive technologies and how the upend the established order. The rise of networked, digital media is one of those. With Google, and this project in particular, we can watch this upending in slow motion.

I would like to have links to Wikipedia, to the original article, to google books, and to sony.

This post can expand here, or branch off into others to cover the failure (so far of electronic readers and the legal snarl of copyright protection.

Also, your final comments about why print books will always have a role need to be elaborated further.

3. breichen - April 4, 2007

I feel that print books will always have a role because there are a variety of shortcomings associated with digital books and readers. These include the inability to take notes in the margin or highlight, although you can mark pages with Sony’s product. Perhaps as this technology improves, such improvements may be made. Even if such improvements are made, print books will not disappear. Books have existed for thousands of years, while such digital media is only a few years old. Because of the way people are accustomed to the look, feel, and smell of a book, I don’t think they will simply throw them away. Also, digital media is exactly that–digital. Books from thousands of years ago exist today because we can hold them and read them. The digital format is not infallible and if every book is digitized and the original thrown away, problems will arise.

Original Article: http://www.economist.com/books/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_RRRTQQG

Wikipedia, digital encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Sony Reader “digital book”: http://www.Sony.com/Reader

Google Books: http://books.google.com/

Google Books Blog: http://booksearch.blogspot.com/

4. breichen - April 4, 2007

This is another interesting article specifically about the Sony Reader.

In reltaion to what Brian wrote about the Ipod’s success in the digital music market, Skinner writes that “[the digital book reader] is not to literature what the iPod is to music.”

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