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Meme:"Digital Libraries"

An outstanding e-newsletter is Meme, the new issue of which is attached
below.  I think most people on the
Xanadu list would be interested in this (assuming of course, they don't
already subscribe!)

Best Regards,
Michael S. Abrams


If you wish to view back issues of meme, they are
archived at:


And now, for your reading pleasure, here is the current issue of MEME.

meme: (pron. 'meem') A contagious idea that replicates  like a virus,
passed on from mind to mind. Memes function the same way genes and viruses
do, propagating through communication networks and face-to-face contact
between people.  Derived from the word "memetics," a field of study which
postulates that the meme is the basic unit of cultural evolution. Examples
of memes include melodies, icons, fashion statements and phrases.

MEME 1.06

First...A little context.

This is the first issue of MEME to come out from its new home, a listserver
at St. John's University.  In the past ten days or so, MEME went from about
400 subscribers to 1400, a number I never could have managed on my own.
Last Friday evening I was at the post office when a couple of mail-room
workers from Jupiter Communications (a local high-tech consulting firm, I
think) came in with a mass mailing -- bales and bales of pre-stamped manila
envelopes in big boxes.  It gave me a fleeting sense of what it would be
like to actually mail MEME to 1400 people on paper.  Apart from bankrupting
me, it would also break my back.  But the real significance of something
like MEME and other Internet-based newsletters (as we all know) is that,
for the first time, it is as easy to communicate with one person as with
1,400 or 14,000 or 14 whatever.  In this new world of
self-publishers/distributors/marketers and everything else, we can enjoy
the freedom to create ideas without the commercial pressures of traditional
media.  But, lost in this celebration of intellectual freedom, is a sorry
fact.  There is one loser in this digital age.  No, not the traditional
publisher.  The big loser is the public library and, if we don't start
paying attention to the library's fate, you and I.  So this MEME is
dedicated to....


"I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of
the people, because they give nothing for nothing...They reach the aspiring
and open to these chief treasures of the world -- those stored up in

                        Andrew Carnegie, 1900

"There is not a person in this room who would argue against the public
library.  They are good for our children, they are good for the country,
they are good for our neighborhoods.  But why does a public library work?
It works because it is based 100% on atoms.  When you borrow that book the
shelf is then empty.  Now, we take the library made of atoms and we convert
it to bits.  What happens?  Two things.  First we don't have to take our
atoms down to the library anymore.  But more importantly, when you borrow a
bit, there is always a bit left.  So bingo!  You now have 20 million people
who can borrow that same bit, and just by changing the atoms into bits you
violate copyright law, and in countries without copyright law, you violate
a sense of intellectual property."

                        Nicholas Negroponte, 1995

"The delivery of information to the researchers' desktops --wherever and
whenever they need it -- from digital library resources.  This is the
essence of the Library without Walls."

                        Rick Luce, Library Without Walls Project Leader,
Los Alomos National Laboratory, 1994.

Remember the old days?

In the 13th century, monks reproduced information by hand in a room called
the scriptorum.  Each book, a process of many years of labor, then went
into the monastic libraries where they were chained to the shelves to guard
against theft -- or unauthorized copying.  In the 15th century, with the
invention of the printing press, books lost their chains, and monasteries
lost their monopoly on information.  But it took several hundred years
before libraries became what many take for granted today: public
institutions which guarantee any citizen access to information without
charge.  In the 19th century, the United States led the way, guaranteeing
its citizens access to information through public libraries.

Such access was seen as the essential foundation for an educated populace
-- a necessity if one believes in democratic government.  But now, this
solitary link to information is being severed.  As information goes
digital, libraries no longer get access to this growing part of the human
record.  The great for-profit libraries of our day -- Lexis/Nexis
(http://www.lexis-nexis.com/), Dow Jones (http://www.dowjones.com), Reuters
(http://www.yahoo.com/News/Newswires/Reuters/) -- feed the elite, without
providing libraries with any access in paper form or electronic form to
this ongoing record of human events, ideas and issues.  For instance, the
New York Public library (http://www.nypl.org/), the second largest library
in the United States, behind the Library of Congress
(http://lcweb.loc.gov/homepage/lchp.html), now offers the 8 million
citizens of New York City one solitary Lexis/Nexis terminal.  This it
seems, is the future of the library in the digital age.

The Digital Library

When a library becomes a digital library, a lot of things change.  In a
nutshell, it starts to look just like a publisher.  It actually becomes a
competitor to the likes of HarperCollins and Random House.  First of all,
you no longer have to physically go to the library to get the information.
You can read it on-screen.  Second, there is no theoretical limit of the
number of people who can "borrow" the same book once the book is in bit
form.  In such a world, a publisher has good reason to rescind the bond
between publisher, library and reader.  In the old days that bond meant
publishers tolerated libraries on one condition -- that the library not
charge for reading books.  This guaranteed that the library's commercial
impact on publishers remained negligible.  But with a digital library, if
the choice is http://publisher.com or http://library.net -- what are you
going to choose?  At library.net you can read the same book for free.  At
publisher.com they'll bill you.  Both are a mouse click away, both have the
same content you want.  But one is free and the other isn't.  So, it is no
surprise that publishers are simply refusing to give libraries electronic
rights; or, if the library is fortunate, it gets to lease the electronic
rights on a renewable basis -- thereby gutting the library of another
precious asset: its ability to build a collection.

In the dog-eat-dog world of the free market, public libraries can pretty
much start digging their graves.  Without government initiative, the public
library will face an onslaught of negative pressures from publishers to
disappear in the digital age.  So what is the US government doing to
support libraries in the future?  Well, it turns out that money is being
spent on this question -- unfortunately, these same monies may well wind up
accelerating the destruction of the library by giving publishers the tools
to become digital librarians.  Known as the Digital Library Initiative
(http://www-diglib.stanford.edu/diglib/pub/nsf.announce.html), this project
is led by a consortium of government agencies: the National Science
Foundation, NASA and the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency
(remember them?  They created ARPANET, the Internet's predecessor).  The
Digital Library Initiative has this as its mission: to "dramatically
advance the means to collect, store and organize information in digital
form, and to make it available for searching retrieval, and processing via
communication networks -- all in user friendly ways."

The Digital Library Initiative

America's universities were called upon to come up with proposals -- and
they did, flooding the NSF with 73 proposals.  Winners would be expected to
generate their own funds by inviting corporations to work as partners,
thereby matching the funds donated by the US government.  In an era of
shrinking research dollars, that made sense.  And in 1994 the NSF announced
that the six winners (Stanford (http://diglib.stanford.edu), UC Berkeley
(http://http.cs.berkeley.edu/~wilensky/proj-html/proj-html.html), UC Santa
Barbara (http://alexandria.sdc.ucsb.edu/), the University of Michigan
(http://http2.sils.umich.edu/UMDL/HomePage.html), the University of
Illinois (http://www.grainger.uiuc.edu/dli/), and Carnegie Mellon
University (http://fuzine.mt.cs.cmu.edu/im/)) would split a purse of $24
million in government money and another $24 million in matching corporate
funding.  Today the six universities are each tackling a different piece of
the digital library pie, along with partners like Bell Atlantic, Microsoft
and IBM.

After reading all the proposals, going through the home pages and speaking
with some of the folks involved, a theme emerges.  The government is
funding research in the infrastructure behind digital libraries: indexing
information, especially images and maps, get precedence; learning how to
fuse disparate forms of information into one catalog is another question;
creating search engines and software agents to roam databases, etc.  By
setting these standards, the government, as with TCP/IP in the late 1970s,
creates an essential foundation for the creation of this massively
heterogeneous, world-wide library.  But strangely absent is a very
important adjective which should modify the noun library -- "free".  When
Andrew Carnegie wrote "free libraries" he understood that essential adjective
was the essence of the library.  If a library isn't free, it just isn't a
library.  Otherwise it is nothing more than a repository for the elite.
Sadly, the universities involved in the Digital Library Initiative are not
exploring these essential social questions of how to structure a digital
library so that publishers get paid while the people still have some means
of getting informed regardless of income.  If we don't lay down the ground
rules for this new relationship in the digital age, the marketplace will
write them for us.

Meanwhile, out on the Web, folks are just going ahead and creating their
own digital libraries for free.  Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Los Alomos
National Laboratory, may be one of the world's busiest librarians.  Every
day he, or rather his workstation (http://xxx.lanl.gov/), serves up
thousands of academic papers in high energy physics, astrophysics,
materials theory -- the list goes on.  He is single handedly demolishing an
old publishing industry: academic journals in the sciences.  This free
library where physicists can upload their latest papers and download their
peer's work is indeed, as predicted, trashing the overpriced,
undersubscribed traditional print journal business.  If Ginsparg's library
is a foretaste of what's to come, you can be certain that the real kings of
publishing -- News Corporation, Time Warner, et. al., will be out there in
the halls of Congress and the nodes of cyberspace trying to squelch your
local library from upgrading to the 21st century.

So what can we do?  One solution is to give libraries electronic rights on
one condition -- that you still have to go to the library to read the
information.  By limiting it to in-house terminals, along with a printer,
you essentially replicate the current situation: books and photocopiers.
You are, in a sense, doing what the monks did in the 13th century --
chaining the information down.  By limiting the number of terminals you put
an artificial, but necessary, limit on the number of "copies" in
circulation at the library.  In return, citizens willing to travel to the
library get access to a current and updateable version of the human record.
It would be helpful to see these universities in the Digital Library
Initiative begin to take a stand in this direction.  If they don't they run
the risk of destroying the very thing they are trying to build, because
until the social priorities surrounding the future of libraries are
resolved, all these technological innovations, elegant as they may be, will
remain irrelevant.


This week's New York magazine published an article of mine on Nicholas
Negroponte, the Media Lab and their own particular blend of Utopian musing
and plans to re-engineer human beings.  You will enjoy it.  If you can't
find it, my own humble digital library at http://www.reach.com/txt.html
will have the (free) e-version sometime next week.

The contents of Meme are (c) David S. Bennahum.  Pass on MEME
anywhere you want, including other discussion lists, just be sure to keep
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