Category Archives: libraries


I read a lot of books, pinballing amongst genres and across disciplinary declevities as I please, and investigating some very odd (or at least infrequently-visited) corners of the print world. Mostly I don’t try to inflict my idiosyncratic tastes on others, but sometimes a book comes along that’s just too good not to make a fuss about. Today’s case in point:

Alex Wright’s Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.

Paul Otlet is probably not a person you’ve encountered before (and if he’s already familiar to you, I’d like to know how), but he belongs in the same visionary realm as Melvil Dewey (of library cataloging and 3×5 card fame), Ted Nelson (who instantiated hypertext), Tim Berners-Lee (pater of the World Wide Web), Doug Engelbart (of Mother of All Demos fame), Vannevar Bush (Memex and As We May Think), JCR Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, ARPA), and a clutch of others (Watson Davis, Patrick Geddes, Emanuel Goldberg, Otto Neurath, John Wilkins) who will probably also be new to you. These people are arguably the primary architects/engineers/makers of the electronic world we all inhabit. The book is especially commended to

  • anyone interested in the history of Information, and the precursors of the Web in particular
  • anyone engaged with European intellectual history, and/or with the world of the first 50 years of the 20th century

Other books I’ve read that I’d put into the same heap, and reread in light of Wright’s book:

George Dyson Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence

James Gleick The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

John Markoff What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

Ted Nelson Possiplex: Movies, Intellect, Creative Control, My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization: An Autobiography

Fred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

David Weinberger Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

I’m just starting Wright’s Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages, and hoping for More Of Same.

I pay them extra and make them mean what I like

I can’t say enough in praise of r0ml Lefkowitz’ talks on Semasiology of Open Source (this year’s and last year’s, from the O’Reilly Open Source Convention). Now that kind of thing OUGHT to enliven a meeting of librarians, but doesn’t. The atmosphere of library meetings is tainted by the fact that the participants are mostly fixated on an Institution that I love in the abstract, but find a lot to be pessimistic and critical about in the particular and concrete. Part of the problem is the attitude of most or at least many librarians: all too many are fraidy-cats, cringingly grateful for the crumbs that Academe bestows, and (with precious few exceptions) very much disinclined to rock even the boats that most NEED rocking. Another irritant for me is that many librarians just aren’t very curious about the territory outside the Profession. Few would see why they should listen to a keynote from an Open Source convention, let alone a couple of hours on Semasiology.

I must confess that Semasiology was not in my lexicon until I heard these sessions, though attention to the shifting meanings of words has been one of my lifelong playgrounds. (A Google Scholar search vouchsafes that “Carnap divided the study of language into syntactics, semasiology, and sematology…” …and Carita Paradis’ Reinforcing adjectives: a cognitive semantic perspective on grammaticalization reminds me that I’ve always been interested in the linguist’s perspectives on language).

three different takes on Google Print

Says Bob Stein, at if:book:

Google Print really is shaping up to be a library, that is, of the world pre-1923 — the current line of demarcation between copyright and the public domain.

Umair Haque, at Bubblegeneration, tucks this in near the end of a long posting:

Google Print is also a killer example of an edge competence based strategy. Like core competences in the 80s and 90s, edge competences are going to dominate the post-network economy of the 21st century. By making info about books more liquid and plastic, Google atomizes upstream and downstream segments in the value chains. For example, it dilutes Amazon’s market power directly, by massively reducing switching costs – and, in general, the market power of anyone on either side of its value chain segment. Value shifts away from the core, and towards the edges.

Tim Wu, at Slate:

Google has become the new ground zero for the “other” culture war. Not the one between Ralph Reed and Timothy Leary, but the war between Silicon Valley and Hollywood; California’s cultural civil war. At stake are two different visions of what might best promote authorship in this country. One side trumpets the culture of authorial exposure, the other urges the culture of authorial control. The relevant questions, respectively, are: Do we think the law should help authors maximize their control over their work? Or are authors best served by exposure—making it easier to find their work? Authors and their advocates have long favored maximal control—but we undergoing a sea-change in our understanding of the author’s interests in both exposure and control. Unlike, perhaps, the other culture war, this war has real win-win potential, and I hope that years from now we will be shocked to remember that Google’s offline searches were once considered controversial.