Online Library Wants It All, Every Book
New York Times, 3.3.1
By ROBERT F. WORTH
The legendary library of Alexandria boasted that it had a
copy of virtually every known manuscript in the ancient
world. This bibliophile's fantasy in Egypt's largest port
city vanished, probably in a fire, more than a thousand
years ago. But the dream of collecting every one of the
world's books has been revived in a new arena: online.
The directors of the new Alexandria Library, which
christened a steel and glass structure with 250,000 books
in October, have joined forces with an American artist and
software engineers in an ambitious effort to make virtually
all of the world's books available at a mouse click. Much
as the ancient library nurtured Archimedes and Euclid, the
new Web venture also hopes to connect scholars and students
around the world.
Of course, many libraries already provide access to
hundreds or even thousands of electronic books. But the
ambitions of the Alexandria Library appear to surpass those
of its rivals. Its directors hope to link the world's other
major digital archives and to make the books more
accessible than ever with new software.
To its supporters, the project, called the Alexandria
Library Scholars Collective, could ultimately revolutionize
learning in the developing countries, where libraries are
often nonexistent and access to materials is hard to come
by. Cheick Diarra, a former NASA engineer and the director
of the African Virtual University, said he plans to begin
using the Alexandria software this year at the university's
34 campuses in 17 African countries.
Still, the idea faces staggering logistical, legal and
technical obstacles: copyright infringement, high costs and
language barriers, to name just a few. Its success will
depend on its ability to raise money from foundations and
to forge links with governments and major universities that
can offer access to their own books and materials. At the
moment, the project is paid for mainly by the library,
which is supported by the Egyptian government and Unesco.
Its American founder, Rhonda Roland Shearer, also raised
seed money from several private philanthropists, including
$800,000 from the philanthropist Paul Mellon, who died in
1999. Its annual operating budget of about $500,000 is more
than enough to start the first phase of its online
collection, said Ms. Shearer, the American artist who
designed the software. She is seeking grants from
foundations as well but has no commitments, she said.
An effort so ambitious, though, is likely to require
considerable capital as it grows, said David Seaman, the
director of the Digital Library Federation. David Wolff, a
vice president of production at Fathom, an online learning
company owned by Columbia University and other
institutions, agrees. "To maintain and grow such an
ambitious Web service for a worldwide audience is going to
require major infusions of capital," Mr. Wolff said.
The project's creators hope its philanthropic ideals and
access to the Islamic world will help raise money. "When
people are concerned about violence and fundamentalism, the
library is a historical symbol of ecumenism and tolerance
and rationality," said Ismail Serageldin, director of the
But the Internet venture may also be shadowed by some of
the controversies that have plagued the entire library
undertaking since it was first conceived three decades ago.
Critics have often questioned its cost and asked whether
its Enlightenment ideals can survive in a country where
censorship is common. And a contribution from Saddam
Hussein before the Persian Gulf war hase also raised
Although the library's administrative independence was
established by law last year, its paper collection is still
small and full of cheap, cast-off paperbacks.
The creators of the new database hope to leave those
problems behind by making digital books and scholarly
materials more accessible. Users of the Alexandria software
will visit the Web site and see a sumptuously illustrated
library, with calling cards and stacks, that will link them
to online texts much like a standard commercial browser.
They will store their digital selections from the library's
collection on shelves in an on-screen personal locker.
The software also includes colorful virtual auditoriums,
classrooms and offices with lamps where scholars can
exchange information, teach classes or hold office hours.
The rooms and lecture halls can easily be customized for
the universities that choose to use the library's software
for remote learning, said Ms. Shearer, whose nonprofit
group, the Art Science Research Lab, will run the
collective with the library.
Few people have used the software. But Richard Foley, a
dean at New York University, said it was more sophisticated
and easier to use than Blackboard, a tool to post academic
material. "The real trick is not just to post information
but to make it usable and interactive," he said. "This is a
much less passive approach to information storage,
retrieval and transmission."
The library has scanned only about 100,000 pages of its own
material, mostly medieval Arabic texts, Mr. Serageldin
said. But it has embarked on a plan to digitize thousands
of books over the next several years, most of them Arabic
texts, with French and English translations, he said. Other
works are scheduled to be scanned elsewhere in Africa,
including a whole library of crumbling medieval manuscripts
in a monastery in Timbuktu in Mali, Mr. Serageldin said.
The library will also have access to one million books that
are now being scanned by Carnegie Mellon University, which
is creating its own vast digital archive and is one of
Alexandria's partners. And the library has a vast trove of
Web material already donated by the Internet Archive, a
California partner with similar universal ambitions. The
collective then plans to begin bargaining for access to
digital collections at other libraries and universities
around the world, offering access to its own materials and
its network of scholars in exchange.
Eventually, Ms. Shearer hopes that private companies
wanting access to its material will join, helping build
revenue for the nonprofit collective and the library.
Not everyone is thrilled by the thought of their works
ricocheting around the world free. In the United States,
publishers have begun to find ways to seal off access to
their copyrighted works. But unlike some for-profit digital
libraries that have sprung up in the last decade, the
cooperative is interested mostly in books that are already
out of copyright, at least at first, said Frederick
Mostert, a London lawyer who advises the group on copyright
issues. In the meantime, the cooperative plans to begin
urging authors to donate their digital rights in the hopes
that the courts will let them be used.
Another possible obstacle may arise from the sheer breadth
of the project's goals: digital library, lecture hall,
international scholars' hub, gateway for ordinary readers
and new software package. "It's hard enough to make an
offering in any one of those categories," said Mr. Wolff of
Fathom. "To combine them all is challenging, particularly
in light of the fact that the decision makers in those
areas may be different at any given institution."
But Ms. Shearer says the library's large ambitions are also
an advantage. The current welter of different approaches to
electronic books and resources is a problem for scholars,
who will make use of the Web only if it can be made easy.
The software she developed, called CyberBook Plus, was
designed to allow its use in different formats and
languages, with a heavy emphasis on visuals rather than
And putting everything in one place is no longer as risky
as it was in the predigital era, said Brewster Kahle, the
founder of the Internet Archive. "One lesson of the
original Library of Alexandria," he said, "is don't just
have one copy."