Moments such as when Archduke Franz Ferdinand or John F. Kennedy got shot are oft considered so significant a fork in the road that people expend pages imagining alternate histories. I can’t help thinking that today we are at just such a moment. Consider this quote from the New York Times article that appeared as part of the PR campaign around Google’s plan to scan the collections of some of the major libraries.
“Within two decades, most of the world’s knowledge will be digitized and available, one hopes for free reading on the Internet, just as there is free reading in libraries today,” said Michael A. Keller, Stanford University’s head librarian.
Can you see what’s horribly wrong with that sentence?
The steward of one of the worlds richest repositories of human knowledge says “one hopes for free.” In effect he’s saying that no, the deal does not assure that.
I would love to be convinced that these librarians didn’t do what I think they did, but it looks to me like they just sold their collections to Google for cheap. It appears that they taken the public good that they, their predecessors, their donors, and their institutions, all of mankind have labored to create and assemble over the millennium and handed it over into private ownership.
I’m sure that the folks at Google are the nicest people, but that knowledge is mankind’s, and it shouldn’t be a matter of “hope” that it be available for free. If there is one lesson that open source has taught us it’s that it is surprisingly easy to capture a public good by the adding of the smallest bits of technology.
If my fears are well founded then this is a very black day in mankind’s history.