- Collecting the world's books online
Robert F. Worth
International Herald Tribune
Saturday, March 1, 2003
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 to anyone with a computer and
an Internet connection. Much as the ancient library nurtured such figures as
Archimedes and Euclid, the new Web venture 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 developing countries,
where libraries are often nonexistent and access to materials is hard to
come by. Cheick Diarra, a former engineer with the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration 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. Moreover, 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 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
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
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," Wolff said.
The project's creators are hoping that its philanthropic ideals and access
to the Islamic world will help raise money. "At a time when people are
concerned about violence and fundamentalism, the library is a historical
symbol of ecumenism and tolerance and rationality," said Ismail Serageldin,
the director of the Alexandria Library.
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 contributions from Saddam Hussein of Iraq have
also raised eyebrows.
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 that seem at odds with its mission.
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 that will be maintained at the library's server in Egypt.
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 Shearer, whose nonprofit group, the Art Science Research Lab,
will run the collective with the library.
So far, few people have seen the software demonstrated. But Richard Foley, a
dean at New York University who has used it, said it is more sophisticated
and easier to use than Blackboard, a popular software tool used to post
academic material. "The real trick is not just to post information but to
make it usable and interactive. This is a much less passive approach to
information storage, retrieval and transmission," he said.
The library has scanned only about 100,000 pages of its own material, mostly
medieval Arabic texts, Serageldin said. But it has embarked on a plan to
digitize thousands of books over the next several years, he said, most of
them Arabic texts, with French and English translations. 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,
The library will also have access to a 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 participating scholars in exchange.
Eventually, Shearer hopes that private companies wanting access to its
material will join, helping build revenue for the nonprofit collective and
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 lawyer in London who is advising 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 allow them to
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 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 Shearer says the library's large ambitions are also an advantage. The
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 posted text.
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."