Larry Sanger, Wikipedia cofounder and present-day apostate, has a new project. In his recent article Text and Collaboration Sanger (2006tcp) makes an argument for why “strong collaboration” works in open content communities and introduces the Text Outline Project. This project, part of the Digital Universe, is intended to summarize the canon of scholarly public domain works into a “single massive outline” or “The Book of the World.” The very name reminds me of HG Wells’ (1938) visionary project “The World Brain.” (As I discuss in Wikipedia’s Heritage: Vision, Pragmatics, and Happenstance, The World Brain never materialized but Wells made a fortune off the partially plagiarized The Outline of History.)
Wells wrote The World Brain would “solve the problem of that jigsaw puzzle and bring all that scattered and ineffective wealth [of information] into something like a common understanding.” Sanger writes The Book of the World will “have revolutionary implications by making knowledge more easily accessible and smashing interdisciplinary and language barriers.” The microphotography upon which The World Brain would be based would permitthe student “to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in exact replica.” The Book of the World will permit a student to “instantly find where a specific passage is located in the outline, and then consult other texts from a wide assortment of thinkers on that precise point.... the student is saved trips to the library stacks.”
While I do not think The Book of the World would be of as much general interest as the Wikipedia, I think it would be of use to scholars – young and old alike. One can find many abstracts and outlines on the Web, but each is in the author’s own idiosyncratic style. As far as I know I’m the only person I know who is placed all of my summary/outlines (\~2000) on the Web in a standard MindMap and HTML form. Only one other person that I know of is using this system and we are not working on the same mindmaps – just using the same tools. I thought about ways to collaborate but haven’t been able to follow through yet. First, I haven’t found other collaborators. Second, besides Wikis, collaborative text editing tools are not easy to come by and use. And finally, there are, sadly, always, copyright concerns. Most of my reading is not from the public domain. Therefore my outlines (with extensive excerpts) would have a questionable status beyond my own scholarly use. At last week’s New York Wikipedia MeetUp Postdlf and I were discussing the copyright of summaries though each of us were ignorant of the standing of things like Cliff Notes. If you have any pointers on the legality of this genre, please let me know!