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July 26, 2007

The Open Library

What if there was a library which held every book? Not every book on sale, or every important book, or even every book in English, but simply every book—a key part of our planet's cultural legacy.

First, the library must be on the Internet. No physical space could be as big or as universally accessible as a public web site. The site would be like Wikipedia—a public resource that anyone in any country could access and that others could rework into different formats.

Second, it must be grandly comprehensive. It would take catalog entries from every library and publisher and random Internet user who is willing to donate them. It would link to places where each book could be bought, borrowed, or downloaded. It would collect reviews and references and discussions and every other piece of data about the book it could get its hands on.

But most importantly, such a library must be fully open. Not simply "free to the people," as the grand banner across the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh proclaims, but a product of the people: letting them create and curate its catalog, contribute to its content, participate in its governance, and have full, free access to its data. In an era where library data and Internet databases are being run by money-seeking companies behind closed doors, it's more important than ever to be open.

So let us do just that: let us build the Open Library.

So says the About us page on the Open Library demo site - in the blog news recently, e.g. here, here, here, here, here and plenty more.  It's hard to disagree with where they are coming from and it'll be very interesting to see how they get on.  Also interesting to see how disruptive this is to the library world in general.

Applying an open Wiki approach to the library catalogue is a neat idea, though it seems odd to me that the underlying metadata schema doesn't make more reference to FRBR?  As I understand it, library cataloguers describe the item in hand.  Trouble is, in a distributed world it is presumably hard to reach agreement about what the item in hand is - there are many hands after all!  So it seems to me that one of the significant challenges facing any distributed and truly open approach to library cataloguing is getting contributers firstly to recognise when any two items are actually the same thing (same item) and secondly to understand the relationship between them when they aren't (same manifestation?, same expression?, same work?).

On the other hand, perhaps I'm just asking old fashioned questions?

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Comments

In many ways, this is the reverse of what the Carnegie libraries did - then it was a remarkable thing that patrons could freely browse open shelves of books, but behind the scenes, the organisation underpinning the categorization of the material on those shelves was distinct from the resulting 'open' information.

Now, patrons will do the categorizing, but will the resulting information - given what you have pointed out - be as 'open' to then as a result, when they come to refer to it? The meta-information, being electronic and virtual, and therefore less amenable to the joys of serendipity, may become more obfuscated.

"Let there be light" indeed!


Andy- I think you've misspoken in the next to last paragraph, where you talk about catalogers deciding whether two items "are the same thing." By definition in FRBR, an item is a unique concrete physical thing; the activity you are describing is more accurately described as determining if two items are exemplars of the same manifestation.

There is one mention of FRBR hidden away on this page http://demo.openlibrary.org/about/help (under the Inter-book relations heading) - may be they didn't want to scare people?

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