The Cult of Brewster Finds Its Church

The Internet Archive's New HomeLast night Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive unveiled his latest project in a venue suitable for any high priest or cult leader — a former Christian Science Church in San Francisco. As it turns out, the Internet Archive recently purchased the building, and as Brewster remarked during the grand unveiling of the Bookserver project, it even matches their long-time logo, which was selected on purpose to imply a physical library.

Although the mood in the great room of the church that eventually Brewster hopes to turn into a modern-day library reading room was more hallelujah-inspiring than anything, the day preceding had been more down-and-dirty technical. The two-day meeting (still going on as I write this), is more about AtomPub and identifiers than holy water and consecrated wafers, but all of it does take a certain amount of faith.

The basic idea is this: there is a growing ecology of e-books out there. Some are offered for sale by various publishers, and some are offered up openly for free by outfits like the Internet Archive, but with varying conditions — for example: price, format, and rights for starters. Plus, e-books are not discoverable in one place, leading to customer confusion and frustration. So Brewster proposes to develop a protocol and metadata profile for making information about e-books available for aggregation by, of course, outfits like the Internet Archive. This work draws heavily upon Stanza by Lexcycle, which iPhone users often use to find and download books to their phone. What Brewster seeks to do is to offer the same service across devices and to expand it’s coverage in terms of publishers and sources of free e-books like the Internet Archive.  Peter Brantley’s slides from yesterday offer a good overview of what is planned.

Dubbed the “Open Publication Distribution System” (OPDS), it is in such a nascent stage that there is almost nothing to see beyond a few code samples. By their own admission documentation is severely lagging behind decisions, which apparently are made by a few active participants but are not recorded (yet) in a public place. The two-day meeting happening now appeared to be half an introduction to the OPDS and half an opportunity to comment and help shape it, but it was unclear how much of the latter could even happen in the rather casual way the days were unfolding.

It should be noted, however, that despite the early stage of development, Brewster’s gang made sure he had something to demonstrate last night, and there is even something you can play with as well. The tag line for Bookserver is “Distributed lending and vending on the Internet”, but so far the bulk of what is available are copies of freely-accessible Internet Archive books. Time will tell how many book publishers get on board with supporting Yet Another Metadata Format (and protocol — most publishers don’t know AtomPub from Adam). I wish Brewster and his followers luck, as anything that makes it easier to find and download e-books is a good thing. But let’s not get carried away. Despite last nights fervor when Brewster demonstrated finding and downloading a book to an XO laptop, or even the straight-from-church-services “come on down!” moment, no one turned water into wine. At least not that I saw.

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About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant works on projects related to improving the technological infrastructure of libraries, museums, and archives.