The future, generally speaking, isn't the sort of thing that happens in the hushed corridors of Oxford University's Bodleian Library. And superficially, there's something low-tech about the curious performance that has been taking place there every day for some time now. Each morning, a team of technicians carts piles of books from Oxford's collection of 11m titles to a nearby building. There, behind closed doors, they are placed on scanning machines. It is laborious work: each page must be manually turned. After that, however, the technology kicks in.
EoR can't help thinking of the medieval monks who spent their lives laboriously copying out books. Back in those days monks would occasionally put little images in among the glosses as a sort of "I was here" marker. The new method doesn't seem very different:
It is already possible, at books.google.com, to search thousands of works, both in and out of copyright, and in many cases to access scanned images of a few pages. On some of them - as critics of the project have delighted in noting -you can see the fingers of the person who scanned them.
The Guardian also provide some frightening statistics:
In 1450, new titles were published at a rate of 100 per year. In 1950, that figure had grown to 250,000. By the millennium, the number published exceeded a million.
So, in 1450, the leisured classes might, if they wished, have kept up with published books. By the time of mass production, this was clearly now impossible. And by the millennium, it was beyond a joke.
How do you decide which books to read? How do you know whether you're missing anything important or of quality? And, as authors attest, it's becoming harder and harder to get anything published these days in the modern, marketing driven, profit up front, economic rationalist publishing world; if you're J K Rowling, you can become a multimillion dollar bestseller even before the book is published - if you're a struggling first time author you're unpublishable (because you've never had a book published).
In which case, where are all these books coming from?