I've blogged a lot about computer technology lately, discussing algorithmic thinking, programming languages, and metadata. I want to take some time to tie these concepts together with the history we've been studying lately.
Aldus Manutius, the great Renaissance publisher, is well known for his preservation of Greek, Latin, and Italian texts, as well as his innovation in bringing these books to the general public in a small, portable format known as an octavo. The modern analogue to his efforts is Project Gutenberg, which is digitizing as many books as it can and providing them for free to the public. The latest count includes more than 33,000 free electronic books. In many ways, this project is fulfilling Manutius' dream beyond his wildest expectations, due to the sheer volume of books being made available and the vast number of readers. Of course, Manutius could not have forseen the digital age, when copies have become nearly free. Nor may he have forseen an era when volunteers would donate their time and resources to provide such a large digital library.
As digital libraries grow, the key to making them useful lies in the computer technologies I've discussed earlier. Metadata ensures that the books and media in a digital library are identified using a standard format that is easily readable by a computer. Thus the metadata fulfulls the dual purpose of organizing the data and making that data accessible via automated computer programs. As digital libraries multiply, programs will be able to search this vast array of books and media to find the ones we want. Imagine a global, distributed database, consisting of all of the books and media in every library in the entire world. We're going to need some awfully smart programs to help us find what we're looking for, maybe something like Google.
This is where it all comes back to Manutius. He did his work painstakingly by hand, collecting manuscripts and selecting the best versions from among those he had available, then replicating them in printed format. Our digital library efforts so far have concentrated on collecting every book we've got. We're going to need an automated Manutius to help us find the one book we need.