THE SUM OF ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE

Writing a book has been slow going for me for a variety of reasons, but none is more prominent than the lack of access to a university library at the moment.

You think – we think – Google Books has digitized a vast amount of written material. And certainly they have. I'm sure the stats on what they have done would be staggering. When you need access to books that are outside of the most obvious 1% of written work, though, it goes dry very quickly. Academic work, older mainstream press books, less successful nonfiction books, books published in non-US publishing houses…it all becomes nearly impossible to find without having access to someone who can hand you a hard copy of it.

It mirrors most of the other functions of the internet in the way that it does an incredible job of providing the most commonly sought-after stuff for 99% of the population very well. You know, if you want the current top 40 songs every streaming service will gladly be like, ok here they are, but with ads. If you're looking for some album from 1951 though, or the latest non-mainstream releases, you're going to walk away frustrated.

Don't give up on libraries and hard copies just yet, folks.

32 thoughts on “THE SUM OF ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE”

  • I don't know where you are these days but my mother, who was an author before she passed, was able to get a pass into the Harvard Widener Library by showing she was working on a book. I suspect if you're near a large city with a university class library, they can do the same.

  • Tempestis Venit says:

    The only thing I miss about academic life is access to those wonderful libraries for personal research. *sigh*

  • why do I adjunct? for the minimum wage pay? paying 15% of my pay for a parking pass? duh, it's for full library privileges, including ILL

  • Know that you are not alone in writing without university support! It's quite a journey and if you show up at a university library enough (most of them do give some deeper access if you use their linked computers) someone eventually feels for you!

  • Does the Chicago Public Library have a research wing? The NYPL had a great collection. There was also a music branch at Lincoln Center if you wanted an old album.

    Google Books can be a real resource, but quality and availability really vary. I've followed The Little Professor who specializes in the 19th century English language novels of Roman Catholicism. I mainly go there for her plot summaries and wry comments in her "I Read XXX, So YOUO Don't Have To" posts. She is always on the lookout for a real 19th century gem, and she finds some on Google Books. She also finds volumes 1 and 3, but not volume 2, or the 1853 revised edition but not the 1838 original. She has real adventures.

    In its favor, the internet does have things like ebay, ioffer and those questionable sites with PDF downloads and bitcoin mining software in their javascript. It also has interesting writers who will casually mention books that one just has to read. My latest is a childrens' book on Alfred the Great's emissary to India.

    Good luck in your research.

  • Ed:

    Consider getting access to Inkblowhard'z liberry.

    A word of warning. "My Pet Goat" and "Atlas Shrugged" are prolly both checked out, thus leaving the liberry empty.

  • When doing periodical research for mid 20th century magazines there still isn't anything better than what I've always called the green books. A massive index of magazine articles.

  • @ Rustonite

    I had successfully blocked the memory of the cost of parking out of my mind, until you reminded me.

    I did have one happy summer where I stopped paying, and the cost of the tickets were still less than the cost of parking passes, until they adjusted them.

  • God love all research libraries: NYPL and Columbia in my jurisdiction, and the opportunity to travel to research libraries in DC, Montréal, and Boston. Google's not so good at basic stuff like every daily newspaper in Lisbon and Luanda in 1975, basic stuff that only interests 27 people around the globe. Next stop, Lisbon.

  • Fun library fact: at a certain public library in suburban Maryland in the 1980's, you could (as a middle school student) check out (couldn't leave with them, but could, ahem, "read" them) any existing issue of Playboy magazine.

    I mean, this was mind-blowing. Staggering. Epochal.

    Thing is though, a lot of us boys couldn't muster the fortitude to actually step up to the library clerk and ask her (it was always a her) for the copies, and withstand her withing glare as she returned from the backroom, boobie magazine in-hand.

  • Fun fact: unlike Google, the library isn't building an elaborate profile based on your every move inside the library and storing all of that information in perpetuity. Information privacy is pretty neat.

  • The most worrisome aspect of this technological advancement is that our written record has been progressively moved to ever more fragile non-interoperable media. Future archeologists will have so little to work with.

  • Interesting discussion (including the comments). One contrarian riposte: The internet in fact allows for vastly more access to obscure music than anyone who didn't live in a place like Berkeley (Amoeba Records and Rasputin). In fact, the internet has had a very negative effect on my finances, as it is so easy to download obscure music. Even iTunes is amazingly broad and in depth. I am not talking about the latest Ariana Grande release. Today I purchased obscure Greek death metal, the latest release from amazing multi-instrumentalist Toby Driver, and a 20 year anniversary album from the fantastic Norwegian metal band Madder Mortem.

  • And another note to the positive? The founder of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle, has for the past several years been working on an analogous project, primarily in the States, though funded primarily by the Chinese government, whereby a hard copy of every book (pamphlet, magazine) ever written, in every language, is being archived, reminiscent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Giant sheds conjuring the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

  • The point-of-view character in Richard Powers's amazing _Goldbug_Variations_ is a reference librarian. I was in love by page 10.

  • It may be worth pointing out that this isn’t an either/or situation. It’s not about hard copies vs digital, or libraries vs Google Books. Libraries provide access to both physical and digital resources, and have done so for decades. Likewise, Google Books hasn’t just digitized metric tons of books on their own; it’s a longtime cooperative effort involving the willing participation of libraries (which is why you will see “X University Library” stamped in the front matter of books scanned by Google). There would be no Google Books without University libraries.

    What is at stake here is the issue of access vs ownership. Libraries own physical copies of whatever is in the collection, whereas digital items are mostly leased (Google Books, I believe, does provide a digital copy of each item it scans to the host library for it to be integrated into the digital collection). Access can be revoked or revised depending on the publisher, which can have a drastic impact on the makeup of the collection. Unlike physical items there is no first sale doctrine in play.

    So yes, online access is inarguably vast and puts many otherwise obscure items within reach of anyone with an Internet connection. This goes for libraries and individuals. The real issue as ever is power. For a library, owning a physical copy is not the same as leasing a digital one. For many individuals I suppose this is merely a matter of convenience, and if they can’t access one they just move on to something else. But for libraries this gets at the heart and soul of what it means to provide access, and remains a significant and unresolved issue. Who owns and governs access is the central problem in the physical vs digital debate; it’s not just a question of format.

  • Supposedly the Brewster Kahle book project is to be an "open library". That said, I doubt one can knock on the door at Svalbard and say, "Folks, I have some really promising arable land. May I come in and look around?"

  • Obviously it's not an either/or but my concern isn't access, it's archiving.

    -Inkberrow: So, it's paper. That's a disaster.

  • My city's public library has a feature called Link+, which is free ILL from almost all public and college libraries in Northern California.

    They also have actual storage space for books that don't get checked out often enough, instead of handing them over to Montag and company.

  • -Get an invite to aaaarg.fail (originally AAARG, the acronym of Artists, Architects, and Activists Reading Group)
    -Download Opera browser (aaaarg.fail has been blocked in North America for the last month so you'll need a VPN. Opera's is free)
    -Set VPN to South America/Europe

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