Sunday, January 6, 2008

How does the book fare in a digital world?

The word in the machine

How does the book fare in a digital world? SUBASH JEYAN finds out.

SUBASH JEYAN

Many media: the book and the digital future

WE live in interesting times. Come to think of it, has any age not thought of itself as going through interesting times? But today, technology is making a fundamental difference to the production, distribution and experience of cultural products and mainstream marketers, with copyright laws on their side cushioning their way to monopoly, find themselves on the wrong side of technology. The odd Napster may have been tamed but gnutellas and p2p networks are thriving. In this parallel world, copyright has as much relevance as the word fair play has in corporate board rooms.

It is easy to let the new entice us just as it is only too easy to mourn in nostalgia over the passing of the old. Witness the various epitaphs written over the death of the written word and the book. What is forgotten in such elegies is that the book is also a product of technology. Gutenberg, who is, more or less, responsible for the book as we know it today, revolutionised the mode of production, a technology. He, didn't, as far as I know, write anything. And as technology changes, so will the medium, the product and its various relationships to the producer and the consumer. From cave walls and stone slabs to palm leaves to paper and movable type, the book has survived and changed. So it will the glow of the cathode ray tube. It may not even be the book as we know it, but isn't that the essence of change?

Halfway house

Between the anything-goes p2p networks and the old production models are a bunch of initiatives negotiating the cusp of change and handholding the book into the digital age. Welcome to the world of digital libraries. They have something of the p2p networks in their aim to make available to everyone free of cost the literary and cultural heritage of the world. Powered by volunteers working through the Net, they are happily free of corporate baggage. At the same time, they work within existing copyright laws. And, typically it would seem, most of the people behind such initiatives have nothing to do with literature, at least on a professional level. It is Gutenberg all over again.

The grand daddy of them all, Project Gutenberg (PG), was started by Michael Hart in 1971 when he had more free hours than he knew what to do with on a mainframe computer. So he keyed in the full text of the Declaration of Independence and thus was born the e-text. The project, as it stands today (http://www.gutenberg.org) took shape in 1991 and is the Internet's oldest digital library, offering over 13,000 e-texts for free download. PG only publishes works which are in the public domain and has stringent rules laid down so that it doesn't get into copyright hassles. Most countries are signatory to the Bern Convention which gives copyright protection to an author and legal heirs up to 75 years after the death of the author, after which the work comes into the public domain (for more detailed guidelines, see http://www.gutenberg.org/howto/copyright-howto).

Though most of the works available pre-date roughly 1925, the collection has an astonishing range and is growing at an estimated 500 e-texts a month. One disappointment with PG is that, if you are looking for India-specific texts, you won't find many. The only text I came across, apart from a translation of the Kamasutra of course, was Sri Vishnu Sahasranaamam.

Indian counterparts

But, there are Indian counterparts to PG. In the mid-1990s, K. Kalyanasundaram, who is a chemist engaged in teaching and research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne, Switzerland, got interested in Tamil computing. One of his first efforts was to release a free Tamil font called Mylai. Soon he was keying in the complete Thirukkural, which he released free on the Net. Shortly, a group of similar-minded people came together and Project Madurai (PM) was born (http://www.tamil.net/projectmadurai) with Kalyanasundaram as the project leader in 1998. Today it has a core management team of more than a 100 people distributed around the world and lots more volunteers, all working through the Net. The project has managed to release more than 200 important Tamil texts so far without any funding from any agency, government or private.

When they started out, says Kalyanasundaram, the project worked on ancient Tamil texts and out of print books. But soon they expanded to cover contemporary authors too when the Government of Tamil Nadu brought the works of around 25 20th Century authors into the public domain including Bharathiyar, Bharathidasan, Kalki, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram and others. And there were writers like Jeyakanthan and Vairamuthu who voluntarily gave permission to the project to convert some of their works into e-texts. Today, the project covers even the works of expatriate Tamil authors from places like Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and other countries. If you would like to contribute, either in terms of locating rare texts or in any other capacity, you can join the project's mailing list at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pmadurai (membership is subject to the approval of the project leader).

Mega projects

Individual initiatives like the PM, pioneering though they are, may soon be dwarfed by mega projects, like the Digital Library of India (DLI), for instance (http://www.dli.ernet.in), whose mission is to make available "free access to all human knowledge". It is a part of the Carnegie Mellon University's The Universal Library (http://www.ulib.org) which plans to digitise a million books by the end of 2005. Based in the Indian Institute of Sciences at Bangalore and with over 20 educational and cultural institutions across India as working partners, the DLI has already scanned more than 50,000 texts and made available online more than 20,000 texts in all the major languages of India.

The digital word, whether we like it or not, is already upon us. But words, whether on paper or in bytes, are made to come alive by the reader. And we as readers, caught up as we are in a fetish of the physical book, are rather like Alice in front of the looking glass:

`How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? ... Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through--' ... And certainly the glass WAS beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

(From Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, E-book #12, 19th Edition.)

As you read Alice negotiating the threshold into a very different world, does it really matter whether the words are on the pages of a book or on the screen of your PDA? I don't personally think it does.

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu

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