Building a Library

Since childhood, I have been drawn to the idea of amassing a collection of literary cultural artifacts that I can share and discuss with my family, and pass down to them to expand. This was quite ambitious in the days when entire rooms of your house would have to be devoted to storing books, but with the advent of digital books, I can not only store as many as I could ever read and carry them with me most anywhere, but I can store them for all time without fear of the bindings breaking down or the pages yellowing with age in the sun. We live in a time in which we have unprecedented access to literature globally via the internet.

Of course, we face different challenges today in building a library. Some of these are new problems that come with the rapid pace of technological development. It turns out that there are some inherent difficulties in storing data in enduring formats that will be readable in the next few decades. Plain text seems to be a good choice, and I expect HTML and its derivative formats (like epub) will age well.

In addition to these new technical challenges, we also face challenges imposed by publishers, many of whom have historically demonstrated some resistance to adopting the benefits of instant global access to data via the internet because of the obvious implications to their business model based on scarcity. The most direct manifestation of this resistance comes in the form of DRM, which encrypts the data they sell you so that it is only readable on your devices. Most every major online bookstore makes it quite difficult to read content you buy with devices or programs not authorized by that store by encrypting it. Some have taken this a step further (like the Kindle Fire) and now make it quite difficult to read anything but the encrypted content they sell you.

But by and large, if you're interested in reading freely available classic books you can do so on most any device you choose.

In this spirit, I thought it was time that I seriously consider reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, so I looked for versions on Project Gutenberg, which is my first stop when looking for classic literature online. After downloading and viewing versions available there, I was disappointed with some of the formatting, and thought I might be able to find better versions elsewhere.

After only a little bit of searching, I ran across the library at the University of Adelaide, which offers a large collection for free classic ebooks. As I clicked through to the page containing the works of Homer, I found this in the short summary of his works:

The poems appear to go back to at least the eighth century BCE, and were first written down at the command of the Athenian ruler Pisistratus, who feared they were being forgotten. He made a law: any singer or bard who came to Athens had to recite all they knew of Homer for the Athenian scribes, who recorded each version and collated them into what we now call the Iliad and Odyssey.

This small historical note presented a sobering juxtaposition for me. This tyrant that lived almost 3000 years ago in Athens concerned himself with the preservation of culture and knowledge so it would endure for millennia, even as I live in a time where the role of government has primarily became to pass and enforce laws that make it ever more difficult to build a library that can endure through the generations. The industry responsible for producing literature today has made it both technically and legally difficult to build a library that will endure even a decade, as the encryption they impose is highly specific to the devices and companies available today. Millions of customers will find they paid for a few years of access to their books, rather than for a copy that they could pass on to a family member in a few decades.

Nevertheless, I think we will ultimately make progress. New business models will emerge, and just as is the case with music, we will shortly find ourselves able to purchase books in unencrypted, open formats readable across hundreds of devices. Some publishers, like Tor Books (announcement) and O'Reilly (policy) have already made this switch and seem to be able to make money from people, like me, interested in reading, learning and bulding a library to pass on to their children.

<2013-01-23 Wed>
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