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the democratization of knowledge

In a city such as Pittsburgh, where knowledge reigns supreme, it is easy to overlook the fact that most of humanity does not have access to the written knowledge we take for granted.  In answer to this problem, the Universal Digital Library (UDL) is attempting to locate, scan, digitize and translate the fifty to one hundred million works of humankind ever published and make them available for free on the World Wide Web.  Although digital libraries have not yet replaced paper libraries, and probably never will, the idea is not entirely new.

The notion was first put forth in the 1930s by the renowned science policy administrator, Vannevar Bush, whose "Memex" envisioned an encyclopedia of the world's knowledge stored on microfilm.  Although Bush's idea turned out to be more inspirational than practical, it eventually found its way into the imaginations of a few pioneers in the budding field of information science.  Not least among these was Carnegie Mellon University's Dr. Raj Reddy, who began pondering the idea of exploiting computer technology to manage large collections of books in the early 1980s.

As hardware and software technology advanced, the idea matured in Reddy’s mind until 1995, when he convened a meeting of a dozen or so of the world's digital cognoscenti. On that rainy day, such pioneers as Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, Michael Dertousos and Donald Lindberg gathered in a stately Tudor mansion on Devonshire Street in Shadyside to discuss the future of Internet communication.

Twenty-three years earlier Kahn had invented the internet-enabling TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), the software that allows servers and client computers to talk to each other, thereby enabling the World Wide Web, Email, FTP, and media streaming.  Together Cerf and Kahn had invented IP (Internet Protocol), the data handling software that breaks large pieces of data into small packets and labels them by destination to be reassembled by a receiving machine.  Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, had been a seminal force in the development of some of the enabling components of Internet communication, including data encryption, graphical user interfaces and the World Wide Web. Donald Lindberg, a pioneer in the application of computer technology to health care was at that time, director of the National Library of Medicine.

For Reddy and CMU’s machine translation virtuoso, Dr. Jaime Carbonell, the meeting served as a springboard for the Universal Digital Library, which after adding CMU’s Dean of Libraries, Gloriana St. Clair, and intellectual property guru, Dr. Michael Shamos as co-directors, evolved into a global collaboration between CMU and the governments of India, China and Egypt.  In 2007, the UDL announced the successful completion of its Million Book Project, which by the time of the announcement had actually scanned 1.7 million books.  The effort continues at rate of about 7,000 books per day at scanning centers in China, India and Egypt, in anticipation of the further development of machine translation, increased global bandwidth and the ubiquity of computers throughout the world.  Those eventualities promise eventually to make available to any person on planet Earth every work of humankind, in his or her native language for all the ages, past, present and future.

The Universal Digital Library promises to bring the world a wonderful new sort of democracy.

This article first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation Chronicles.

© Copyright 2008, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications

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