I don't think it's giving too much away to note that the process of book scanning plays a significant role in the plot of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. At the center of the novel's plot is the high-speed book scanning process used by Google in its Books project.
Setting aside any of the controversy around Google Books and potential copyright infringement (a recent law suit determined that Google's book scanning is fair use), anyone could agree that Google's project is both ambitious and impressive.
Originally launched in 2002 and inspired by databases of public domain works like Project Gutenberg, Google Books has since scanned more than 20 million books using high-speed robotic cameras that can process as many as a thousand pages per hour. Google has partnered on this project both with libraries and with individual rights holders and publishers.
Besides the obvious potential advantages of being able to access the full text of any printed volume from any computer anywhere in the world, by virtue of the sheer volume of available texts, Google Books also allows people - from programmers to linguists to historians to ordinary citizens - access to a vast storehouse of information that illustrates how we use language, how writing has changed over time, and how communication itself has evolved over many centuries of printed, and even pre-printed, work.
Many researchers now use this vast repository to embark on elaborate cross-platform analyses; one example of such a project was explained during a recent Tedx talk, illustrating via sophisticated data mapping tools how word use has changed over time. As an Atlantic article explains, these tools can be utilized not only to investigate the changing nature of individual words but also to examine how trends, interests, and objects of human preoccupation have changed over time. Projects like Google Books exemplify the power of large numbers and illustrate vividly how new technology can use old knowledge in strikingly new ways.
This article was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the
September 2013 paperback release.
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