Saturday, April 3, 2021

A Bookworm's Dream: Open Library

Open Library is even better than ever...
By Laurie Allee
For those of you reading this via email, click here to see the accompanying video
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So the mission of Open Library isn't ambitious or anything...

It's simply "to make all the published works of humankind available to everyone in the world. This dedication to open and accessible knowledge warms my utopian heart in ways I can't begin to express.  I want everyone to have access to books.  Lots of books.  Weird books and silly books and banned books and books never mentioned in a Buzzfeed list or a YouTube video.  When I see bookshelves, I feel like I'm in front of an oracle, and it's just waiting to point me to a revelation or a warning or a great, big cosmic secret.

Books have done more for me than just entertain and inform; they have helped make me who I am.  And they aren't finished with me yet.  

The basic kindle is great for e-books
I think of bookstores and libraries as holy places, offering insight and revelation to any seeker who shows up to look around.   So, too, are the apps and websites that deliver books to me.  Even though I've written for the internet since 1994, I'm still awed by its scope and potential.  Prime book delivery in a day!?  Digital libraries on Overdrive!?  It's dizzying.  I still look at my kindle like it's a holographic librarian.  It supplies my near insatiable jones with as many library e-books as I can check out, literally plucking them out of thin air and making them appear before me on my e-ink screen.  This librarian is always on call, no matter what time of day, as long as I remember to charge the kindle battery.  Every book delivered provides something useful or inspiring or thought-provoking or even life changing.  (It's a little bit like this librarian, come to think of it.)  

Preordering from Amazon means shiny hardbacks from my favorite authors delivered on the day of publication.  Sometimes signed!   Audible delivers famous actors reading classic works for under $15, and Hoopla gives them to me for free.  I have a teetering stack of books by my bed.  I'm always halfway through at least a dozen reads and I usually have an audiobook playing as I do chores or take a bath or make dinner or drive so that no matter what mindless task I'm doing or errand I'm running, I'm reading.

So what, you might ask, could I possibly get out of Open Library?  

Let's just start with this: the books available to check out (FREE!) at Open Library are not digitized e-books.  They are scans of actual, physical books.  When you use your device to browse a book on Open Library, you are looking at high res scans of actual paper pages.  You'll occasionally see notes in margins.  You'll often see old library markings.  The only thing missing is that wonderfully dusty old book smell.

Since Covid-19 placed my family into an extended house arrest, one of the things I have missed most is wandering through libraries and used bookstores, looking at old books.  That's where I find books I've never heard of, and others that may be out of print, with yellowing pages and taped covers and a few coffee stains serving as artifacts of all the other readers who found and read the book before I did.  There are treasures hidden in those stacks. 

I've checked out marvelous old out-of-print herbals and art books and poetry chapbooks from my library.  I've picked up books at yard sales and elementary school fundraisers and thrift stores.  When I was in college, I found a first edition of the 1937 publication of The Complete O'Henry Short Stories at Half Price Books in Austin.  It had the inscription: "To Dottie.  May this book always remind you of our summer together.  Love always,  Max." I've always wondered how on earth Dottie's book ended up among used textbooks, remaindered romance novels and an inordinate number of Stephen King paperbacks.  Max had no way of knowing that even if Dottie forgot their summer, I won't.    

I once found a sealed first edition of Norman Mailer's book about Marilyn Monroe at one of the many used bookstores that used to thrive in West LA.  My mother once found a beautiful 1928 hardback book about visiting Paris.  She picked it up at a rummage sale for $1.00.  It has pen and ink drawings and advice on how to get the best deal from the bouquanistes along the Seine.  If I ever time-travel there, I'll know what to do.

I've missed the treasure-hunting aspect of browsing stacks -- especially old stacks -- of all kinds of books.  I just never know what I'll find there.  
A ridiculously affordable tablet perfect for Open Library
When I discovered Open Library, it gave me the same kind of thrill.  No, it can't send a digital file to your kindle, but you can digitally thumb through and read books you will probably never get your hands on in real life.  Want to look at a 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby?  Have at it.  Want it to be read to you?  Just push the little headphone button at the bottom of the book's page on Open Library, and whatever AI you have on your device will assume the role of Nick Carraway and start telling you about the advice his father gave him in his "younger and more formidable years."

While many AI voices are truly awful, the Amazon kindle voice-to-text "Brian UK" is actually great.  He sounds kind of like Carson from Downton Abbey, if he were a fairly convincing replicant.  I use my Fire tablet to not only browse Open Library in full color on a 7 inch screen -- which has the aspect ratio and feel of a classic trade paperback, and is sturdy as an old leather journal with the cover I use -- but also to let Brian read books that aren't available on audiobook.  Praise be to the Gods of Old Books!

Almost as good as the physical book
I've been able to find out of print books on Open Library that aren't available to purchase.  I've also been able to read popular books that are on long library wait lists.  I was able to check out For Whom The Bell Tolls in advance of the new Ken Burns documentary.  (All copies were checked out at my various digital libraries, and the Hemingway boxed set I want to buy is backordered on Amazon.)

I've checked out dozens of those expensive coffee table photography books that don't have traditional kindle editions.  I've checked out dozens of plays, art books, and even the edition of The Prophet that my mother used to keep on her bedside table. 

Written words have power. Books for all! 
Right now is about the time for someone to chime in that a project wanting to make every single printed book available to the public for free is just a big, pie-in-the-sky idea from leftist hippies trying to bring down capitalism and wreck the livelihoods of writers.  My reply is this: Open Library is a library.  You can't download these books to keep, you have to wait your turn if they are checked out and they automatically return on their due date.  Just like, you know, every other library in the free (market) world.  As both a writer by profession and a leftist hippie with big ideas, I support Open Library's mission, as well as all missions to digitally archive books that will otherwise molder and rot in landfills.  Just think if current technology had been available 2000 years ago.  The Library of Alexandria would still be accessible online.  As for writers' livelihoods, we can have another, bigger discussion about the current state of publishing and how few writers can actually make a living writing books.  (Hint: the problem isn't lending libraries.) As for bringing down capitalism? No comment.

So, Open Library was already fabulous enough, but as of December, 2020 it got even better.  Their new "Library Explorer" intuitive interface feels like an actual library or used bookstore... with virtual bookshelves to browse, different sections to explore and a pretty great user experience for a beta site.  They're still working out the bugs of the new system, but I highly recommend taking a deep dive.  If you want to search the Open Library for a specific book, click here.  

You can directly access Open Library Explorer here, or if you want to come right back to my shelves, find it through the Books With Laurie Open Library Explorer shelf here.  Read more about the Explorer project here

Here are just a few of the books just waiting for you:  


If are more comfortable with your nose in an old book than in figuring out a new online technology, I feel you.  Make a cup of tea and watch the official Open Library Explorer explainer video at the top of this post!  

And speaking of video...

Every month I embed a bookish film to watch for free.  Click here to see this month's pick.  You're welcome, bookworms!

If you've made it this far, you obviously love books as much as I do.  So do these people.

Drop me a line if you want to be included in my Book Club.  

You can leave a message or comment here.