Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria - The Atlantic

“The greatest tragedy is we are still exactly where we were on the orphan works question. That stuff is just sitting out there gathering dust and decaying in physical libraries, and with very limited exceptions,” Mtima said, “nobody can use them. So everybody has lost and no one has won.”
It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.

I asked someone who used to have that job, what would it take to make the books viewable in full to everybody? I wanted to know how hard it would have been to unlock them. What’s standing between us and a digital public library of 25 million volumes?

You’d get in a lot of trouble, they said, but all you’d have to do, more or less, is write a single database query. You’d flip some access control bits from off to on. It might take a few minutes for the command to propagate.

For those who subscribe to the theory that Google has a go-to-market problem, this has the hallmark of the quintessential example.

  • A fantastic problem of scale
  • An almost altruistic mission
  • A phenomenally complex solution that's elegant in abstract
  • A true focus on win-win-win for all parties
  • A terrible job at convincing people to do the right thing
  • Pulling back a potentially life changing product

I highly recommend reading this long superbly written article on how the ambition was curtailed because of a combination of greed, dog headedness, stupidity, miscommunication, brilliance, and the American legal system.