The vision of a universal digital library

On 27 November 2007, Heise News reported that the Universal Digital Library, also known as the Million Book Collection, has by now digitised more than 1.2 million books. This is about one percent of all books. The non-commercial project has been driven by Carnegie Mellon University in cooperation with partners from China, India and Egypt (Bibliotheca Alexandrina). The financial support was mainly provided by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), while China and India provided manpower of about 2,000 man years. The mission of the Universal Digital Library (UDL) is to “foster creativity and free access to all human knowledge”. Thus, the digitised books are freely available on the UDL website.

The Web database of 1.2 million scanned books, as it is right now, is still far from being satisfactory. If you try to access it, you face – even with a decent broadband connection – long page loading times. I tried to find the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and received, after a couple of minutes a list of several editions of this book. In order to view one of these editions, it is necessary to download a proprietary viewer called DjVu, which is provided by LizardTech, a Seattle-based software company that is part of the Japanese technology company Celartem Technology Inc.

I see basically two problems with this: firstly, the software is not very user-friendly and the graphical user interface does not high usability. Secondly, using proprietary software is not fully in line with the vision of permanently providing access to the scanned books. The first barrier is that you have to install the DjVu viewer, which may already be a problem for some Internet users. Furthermore, a proprietary viewer format could become outdated in a couple of decades.

In comparison, the approach by Project Gutenberg appears to be more perspicacious. They save every e-book in ASCii plain-text format, which should guarantee a relatively high readability of electronic documents irrespective of the operating system and the text viewer/editor used. Admittedly, the scope of Project Gutenberg as far more limited, as they currently have about 20,000 e-books in their Internet library – very little compared to the 1.2 million UDL books, but still very impressive considering that this is all based on volunteer work. Instead of several editions of Franklin’s autobiography I just get one, but this is completely sufficient for me, and the usability of an easily downloadable txt file is much higher compared to downloading books page by page, as in the case of DjVu.

There is another global library project emerging, the World Digital Library under the auspices of UNESCO. It’s purpose is to provide free access via Internet to important cultural documents from all over the world in a multilingual format. In October, a prototype of the Internet platform was presented which looks impressive. However, this is still in a early phase, and it doesn’t replace the Universal Digital Library or Project Gutenberg.

In addition to these non-commercial projects there are also projects driven by commercial interests, most prominently Google Book Search. Finding Franklin’s autobiography there is also no problem, but in this case, I am referred to commercial online bookshops. A nice feature of Google Book Search is the map of places mentioned in the book. My vision for a global digital library is to have the scope of the Universal Digital Library and UNESCO’s World Digital Library combined with the perspicacious approach of Project Gutenberg and the usability of Google Book Search.

Milon Gupta

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