Two-way web pushes door to information wide open

The Open Library project came up for discussion on the newly refurbed Talis Library Gang podcast. A year in and the dream holds, even if we users still have to content ourselves with a demo.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how appealing “free” is? Start any discussion with “XYZ should be free” and everyone has to agree: “Food should be free.” “Hear, hear!” But then the niggling doubts creep in, such as how will farmers be paid?

And that’s the status of the Open Library. Its dream is to make information on books available to all and sundry. It’s even putting full texts online when it can. It’s close to defining APIs (application programming interfaces) so that developers can grab information from the database.

The model is similar to Wikipedia with a page per book, but the Open Library wiki will allow for structured entries. The world at large will provide information to the database, the development of which is funded through donations and grants.

Once the system goes live, it should not be expensive to run, and can be financed through a combination of donations and commercial activities, such as printing on demand and commissions from Amazon referrals.

The servers are being run by the Internet Archive, the people who came up with the Open Library idea in the first place. You may already have encountered them as the Wayback Machine, which is a great way to check on earlier versions of websites. It also has a book scanning project which has been scooping up out-of-copyright books to make them available to the project.

Records can be gleaned from anywhere: the Library of Congress Catalogue, people’s own notes, library systems generally, Amazon, anywhere in fact where book information lives. And that’s going to create tensions, not to put too fine a point on things.

The end-result should become a widely referenced and accessed hub for book communities, both professionals and the general public.

With so much data available free of charge, some organisations are bound to be concerned about the threat to their own business models. No doubt we’re going to see a rerun of the Encyclopedia Britannica versus Wikipedia shenanigans.

Talis’s Richard Wallis points out: “It could also push their business models towards adding services on top of the data, rather than from the data itself.”

He has a point. And the big difference these days is that tens of thousands of book lovers will be more than willing to give a little bit of their time to polish the resource.
Before we had a two-way web, getting people to participate en masse was not practicable or affordable. Organisations had to invest in expensive data gathering and cleaning operations. Soon, though, the work will be done with minimal centralised effort.

If the Open Library project ends up following the Wikipedia trajectory, then this will disrupt organisations such as the OCLC, for example, just as much as Encyclopedia Britannica was disrupted.

These things happen all the time. Siebel suffered when marched in with a no-brainer software-as-a-service offering which could be paid for out of petty cash. And Microsoft is finding it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that not everyone wants to run its Internet Explorer browser to access their organisation’s SharePoint system.

But it’s the way of the world. A nimble youngster turns up with a useful bit of web-based functionality, which is usually free and unites a community, and organisations that are wedded to their old ways can only stare in horror as their business models start to unravel.

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