Tuesday, October 29, 2013

eBook Heaven

Do you believe in heaven?

Well, why not? There are many ways to think about heaven. Most people will admit that there's something of us that lives on after we die, even if it's just the memories that we leave in others or the impact of our lives on the material world. And whatever that something is, it doesn't need food to eat or even air to breathe. It certainly doesn't require a paycheck. Truth and beauty and wisdom, those qualities don't really die with our bodies, do they? If the bit that we leave behind has of its essence some truth or beauty or wisdom, doesn't that sound like heaven?

If you have a favorite library, you know what book heaven is like. Words can live on long after their creators have turned to dust. Libraries work each and every day to bring all the truth, beauty and wisdom in their collections to their communities, both present and future. They cooperate with each other, so that even if your library is missing the book you need, another will fill the void. The rules governing our society have recognized how important all this is, and allow us all to benefit from the labors of those whose existence has faded to memories.

I believe in ebook heaven. In ebook heaven, there are no royalties to pay to Herman Melville or William Shakespeare or Dante Alighieri.  There's even a slushpile in ebook heaven, where the weight of the world presses a diamond or two from unpublished graphene sheets.

The ebook heaven I believe in – some call it Open Access.

There's ebook hell, too, and that's what libraries live today. In ebook hell, books don't live forever, they disappear after a year. Or they're snatched into the kindles of eternal damnation by digital rights demons, lawyers and engineers. Every read must be monetized to feed some hungry monstrosity, and truth and beauty and wisdom are memories like the smells of leather bindings and musty paper.

Or maybe it's ebook purgatory. Dante imagined purgatory as a mountain that souls must climb before being admitted into paradise. In each circle around the mountain, the deadly sins that have stained the souls – envy, greed, lust, etc. – are purged by suffering, sanctified by fire and purified by agony. At last, the remains enter into the Garden of Eden, where everything has returned to its original perfection.

As we look to the future of ebooks, all we can see today is a long circle of purgatory. Our copyright theology posits that we must track millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of creators and their deaths into the far future so that we may say if a work has passed into ebook heaven. In more circles around Purgatorio mountain, we must track national boundaries, regional rights, governing laws, inheritance claims, contract disputes, international conventions, and perhaps even patent rights.

But still, I believe in ebook heaven.

Libraries are still endeavor to create little circles of ebook paradise. Within the bubble of a library, ebooks can be free to read. Digital archivists see that some books really do outlast us. New generations of minds encounter all sorts of new knowledge and enlightenment.

Libraries still work with each other to connect their bubbles and make their ebook paradises bigger. We need to enlarge those heavens, book by book, year by year, library by library. And we can't restrict ebook paradise to academia, any more than a belief system can restrict spiritual paradise to its priesthood. We need to find ways to expand the boundaries of availability for every book, to build bridges between today's best sellers and the far future of the public domain.

eBook heaven is worth working towards, together.

Do you believe in it?

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