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The Internet has put universal access to knowledge within our grasp. Now we need to put all of the world’s literature online. This is easier to do than it might seem, if we resist the impulse to centralize and build only a few monolithic libraries.

Centralization can lead to price controls, censorship without due process, lack of reader privacy, and resistance to innovators. We need lots of publishers, booksellers, authors, and readers—and lots of libraries. If many actors work together, we can have a robust, distributed publishing and library system, possibly resembling the World Wide Web.

The courts struck down as monopolistic an attempt by top libraries and Google to build a massive e-book collection. They proposed a collective licensing system, the Book Rights Registry, that would have the right to license exclusively to Google any book not claimed by an author or publisher. It would have limited options for readers. Now some proponents of the nonprofit Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) are encouraging legislative action that we fear might lead to a similar collective licensing approach (see “The Library of Utopia.”)

We could be helping nurture the seeds of a distributed library and publishing system—seeds that have already been planted.

All libraries could lend e-books, just as they lend physical books, avoiding a dependency on centralized databases. Libraries are already buying as many e-books as they can, and even small libraries can offer large collections: a single hard drive can hold over 150,000 books (as searchable color PDFs) and their catalogue data. It is not difficult to lend books digitally, as technologies used by Netflix and Amazon show.

Patrons of thousands of libraries can already borrow over 200,000 purchased and scanned e-books free from the Internet Archive. Most large publishers have recently banned e-book sales to libraries, but we hope this restriction is temporary. Even as we acquire current e-books, we need to scan existing ones, but again, this work is already under way. We scan 1,000 books a day at 31 libraries in seven countries with funding from libraries and foundations.

Scanning centers such as those at the Boston Public Library and the Library of Congress digitize hundreds of books a day. Libraries working with the Internet Archive have already put over two million public-domain books online for free downloading and lending, and for use by people unable to read printed books.

Now is our chance to build an online library accessible to all. To equal the Boston Public Library or university libraries like those at Yale or Princeton, we need 10 million books. These could be acquired in four years for approximately $160 million. The DPLA, with its broad support, can help build this library system, or it could end up building an overly centralized library by using collective licensing systems like the Book Rights Registry. If we work together, we can achieve universal access to knowledge by building on the positive lessons of the Internet and World Wide Web.

Brewster Kahle (pictured above) is the founder of the Internet Archive. Rick Prelinger is an archivist, writer, and filmmaker.

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Credit: Nick Reddyhoff

Tagged: Internet, e-books, libraries

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