Monday, May 15, 2006

Scan This Book!

Correction Appended

In several dozen nondescript office buildings around the world, thousands of hourly workers bend over table-top scanners and haul dusty books into high-tech scanning booths. They are assembling the universal library page by page.

The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages. It is a familiar hope, in part because long ago we briefly built such a library. The great library at Alexandria, constructed around 300 B.C., was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in the known world. At one time or another, the library held about half a million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 and 70 percent of all books in existence then. But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed. Since then, the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to contain it. For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding further into the infinite future.

Until now. When Google announced in December 2004 that it would digitally scan the books of five major research libraries to make their contents searchable, the promise of a universal library was resurrected. Indeed, the explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing to everything in one decade, has encouraged us to believe in the impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?

Brewster Kahle, an archivist overseeing another scanning project, says that the universal library is now within reach. "This is our chance to one-up the Greeks!" he shouts. "It is really possible with the technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon." And unlike the libraries of old, which were restricted to the elite, this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person.

But the technology that will bring us a planetary source of all written material will also, in the same gesture, transform the nature of what we now call the book and the libraries that hold them. The universal library and its "books" will be unlike any library or books we have known. Pushing us rapidly toward that Eden of everything, and away from the paradigm of the physical paper tome, is the hot technology of the search engine.

1. Scanning the Library of Libraries

Scanning technology has been around for decades, but digitized books didn't make much sense until recently, when search engines like Google, Yahoo, Ask and MSN came along. When millions of books have been scanned and their texts are made available in a single database, search technology will enable us to grab and read any book ever written. Ideally, in such a complete library we should also be able to read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine or journal. And why stop there? The universal library should include a copy of every painting, photograph, film and piece of music produced by all artists, present and past. Still more, it should include all radio and television broadcasts. Commercials too. And how can we forget the Web? The grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead Web pages no longer online and the tens of millions of blog posts now gone — the ephemeral literature of our time. In short, the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.

This is a very big library. But because of digital technology, you'll be able to reach inside it from almost any device that sports a screen. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have "published" at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow's technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn't plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what's taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.)

Read this article in its entirety:
Scan This Book! - New York Times

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Critic of No Child Left Behind Was Disinvited From Meeting

Published: May 13, 2006

Patricia Polacco is a popular author of children's books, known for her cuddly tales of loving grandmothers and precocious tots. She is also known for her less than comforting critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act and its emphasis on high-stakes testing.

Now she says a leading publisher found her dual roles incompatible and disinvited her from speaking at the International Reading Association's annual meeting this month in Chicago because she would not agree in advance to stay away from her views on testing in her talks.

Ms. Polacco says the publishing house, McGraw-Hill, a sponsor of the convention, canceled her contract for two appearances because of its dual role as book and test publisher. McGraw-Hill says it only sought to stop an author with an agenda from turning its exhibit at the reading convention into a political platform.

"I see teachers across the country, and they come up to me with tears in their eyes and say we used to be able to do creative things" before the emphasis on testing that came with No Child Left Behind, Ms. Polacco said, explaining why she wanted to talk about the law. She accused McGraw-Hill of trying to benefit from her popularity yet censor her views. "If they want someone to stand up and say how wonderful No Child Left Behind is, then hire someone who feels that way," she said.

McGraw-Hill denies that it sought to censor Ms. Polacco, stating, rather, that it wanted to enforce a contract she signed in February, listing two specific themes that she would cover at the convention: "The Heroes of My Life" and "Tales and Talk," speeches that were supposed to bring into play the real life stories that inspired her books.

In the contract, the company gave Ms. Polacco direction: "gear message to directly connect with the audience (predominantly teachers) by focusing on how they too are heroes and encourage them." It also asked her to provide "inspiration and tips" about breaking into publishing. The contract does not mention testing or anything related to education law.

Ms. Polacco said she told the company in late April that she could not talk about either topic without referring to what she considered the negative impact of No Child Left Behind on education. "That's part and parcel of what I believe," she said yesterday in a telephone interview from her home in Union City, Mich., adding that she told a representative of the company, "I would be remiss if I didn't bring this up."

One week before the convention, which drew 22,300 attendees, McGraw-Hill took back its invitation via e-mail message. Ms. Polacco was to be paid $5,000.

"We respect her right to express her ideas," said Steven H. Weiss, a spokesman for McGraw-Hill Education. "Since our presentation was focused on reading and children's books, we didn't believe that our exhibit was an appropriate forum to make a public policy speech."

In addition to its literary publishing, McGraw-Hill is one of the market leaders in providing testing materials to help its clients — states and school districts — meet the requirements for annual accountability required by No Child Left Behind. Test publishing is estimated to be a $1.4 billion industry.

Ms. Polacco, whose primary publisher is Penguin Putnam, said she accepted the invitation only because she mistakenly believed it came directly from the International Reading Association, a nonpartisan professional group. Although she signed the contract with SRA/McGraw-Hill, whose name appears many times on the document, she said that did not initially register. Further complicating matters, most correspondence and calls about the event came from a media relations firm for McGraw-Hill, not the company itself.

As for the confusion, Mr. Weiss, the publisher's spokesman, said, "That's impossible."

The International Reading Association is not taking a side. "This was a private for-profit arrangement between Ms. Polacco and a publisher and has nothing to do with IRA," Alan E. Farstrup, the group's executive director, said yesterday in a statement.

Still, the disagreement was fodder for comment on the Internet, after Ms. Polacco posted personal messages on her Web site, and bloggers took up the conversation. Ms. Polacco urged her fans not to direct anger toward McGraw-Hill, but rather toward "the tyranny of the No Child Left Behind mandate."

While Ms. Polacco found much support on the Web, particularly among librarians, one blogger, Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book Inc., a small publishing house in Boston, said: "I can't agree that this is a case of censorship. Speech you get paid for rarely is."

Critic of No Child Left Behind Was Disinvited From Meeting - New York Times

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