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Elgan: Is that the Library of Congress in your pocket?

Radical changes in books and magazines could transform the world we live in

January 1, 2010 06:12 AM ET

Computerworld - I used to own a copy of National Geographic magazine from 1911. It was packed with black-and-white photographs of "natives" and village ethnic minorities in various countries posing awkwardly in ceremonial costumes. The issue was part of a larger collection that included most copies of National Geographic published in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and several dozen copies from the 1920s through the 1950s. It took up two rows on my bookshelf.

I've moved several times since acquiring all of those magazines, which fit neatly into nine very heavy boxes. Toting them from place to place added to the pain and expense of moving.

Imagine my surprise this week when I learned that National Geographic is selling digital versions of every copy of National Geographic published since 1888 on DVD for $70. No, there are no typos here. They'll sell you 120 years of brilliant photography, insight and commentary about our world for essentially the price of taking your family to see "Avatar." For $200, they'll even send you the lot on a 160GB hard drive.

Meanwhile, the Library of Congress was good enough to scan some 60,000 historically valuable books, many of which were too fragile even to let historians touch them. These documents were next to impossible to access, even by historians. Now, anyone in the world with an Internet connection can access all of them -- if, that is, they're not too busy poring over the more than 10 million books Google has scanned and put online for free.

Speaking of free, that appears to be the magic price point for big eBook sales. Amazon announced this week that the majority of its record-breaking Kindle eBook sales over the holiday were, in fact, books the company was "selling" at the price of zero. Many of these were public domain books with expired copyrights. But surprisingly, many were not.

Where is all this going?

If you follow the trend lines for book and magazine availability, pricing and the costs of distribution and digital storage, we'll soon find ourselves living in a world where literally millions of titles are available to just about everyone, just about all the time. How will that change human culture? Here are the implications:

A magazine subscription will include all back-issues. What happens when you subscribe to the electronic version of Esquire, and they toss in every issue of Esquire ever published? You can now include the magazine in your global searches for information. A magazine subscription suddenly becomes more valuable to readers. Business model anyone?

Intellectuals lose their monopoly access to some content. I started out in the newspaper business, and very quickly began writing opinion columns. We small-town newspaper editorialists used newspaper clippings in a self-constructed "morgue file" as our primary resource. The big-time, national and syndicated columnists had pricey subscriptions to the Lexis/Nexis database, which is billed as the "world's largest collection of public records, unpublished opinions, forms, legal, news, and business information." Well before journalists used the Internet for anything, deep-pocket columnists could conduct what were essentially Google-style searches to find all kinds of information, while we hacks in the hinterlands had to thumb through paper folders jammed with newspaper articles.

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