Thursday, July 1, 2010

Amazon and Wikipedia are both encyclopedias

It's always good to step back for a minute and ask yourself why you do some of the things you do.

When I mention a book in one of my posts, I typically provide a link in case the reader is unfamiliar with the book. I imagine when the link is clicked, the article about the book will be quickly skimmed to get a rough idea of the ideas of the book and its legacy.

Occasionally I link to the Wikipedia page about the book, but most of the time I link to the page. It wasn't until this week that I realized how weird this is. When I want a quick encyclopedia article for my blog, a merchant page is usually better than an actual encyclopedia.

I do not expect the reader to order the book to read simply because I mentioned it in passing. I would not be rewarded by Amazon if I did. Amazon recently introduced a program to do just that, but I haven't signed up for it. If I did, I wouldn't expect to make more than a dollar out of it in my lifetime.

Instead, my motivation is simply that Amazon provides the most useful page to showcase a book and its legacy. There is a summary and a series of reviews and short discussions on the book. Sometimes visitors can search through the book for a preview. This free service is a byproduct of the company's drive to sell more books.

In effect, Amazon is an encyclopedia about books. It provides a public good as a positive externality, as visitors do not need to be customers to view the information.

Other times I'll find a helpful Wikipedia page about the book and link to that. Wikipedia tries to be a public good and is paid for by donations with the intention of being an encyclopedia, instead of a side effect from a for-profit corporation. It's not as reliable as Amazon. Sometimes the legacy, context and impact of the book is listed, but it's usually not. Sometimes there is a discussion hidden under a tab, but on Wikipedia the discussion is supposed to be about the entry, not the subject itself.

If I want to provide a link about a book for my readers, I have two good choices from private firms. What I do not have is a helpful tax-funded site to link.

The natural choice for that role would be the Library of Congress. This isn't exactly what the Library does - it is an actual library that anyone can visit, but only members of Congress get library cards. Still, it has an entry on every book.

To show what the different book pages look like, I've chosen an important and well known book, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.

Amazon has a lot of information on both the book and Hayek himself. As always for political books, the reviews bulge around perfect scores (five stars) and lowest scores (one star). Unfortunately, most one star reviews are not actual reviews - they are complaints about the ideas of a book, often from someone who makes no claim to have actually read it.

Wikipedia has a great entry at this time. It includes the ideas of the book and it's legacy, which is perfect for me as a blogger. It also includes criticism of the ideas, a popular thing for Wikipedia editors to focus on. More obscure books have brief articles, or none at all.

Library of Congress provides some legal details of the publishing of the book, as well as the table of contents. There are tags to some of the themes of the book, such as totalitarianism and economic policy. This is exactly what you would expect the card catalogue of a library to include, but nothing more.

Barnes & Noble
has a synopsis and a few reviews. It's much less than Amazon, but it is enough for an observer to understand what the book is about.

Google Books has a lot of the text of the book in a searchable electronic format. However, it does not have a summary for a casual reader, so it wouldn't be helpful as an introduction.

In the interest of fairness, the Library of Congress and Google Books are not supposed to be encyclopedias. But, I will add, neither are Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They have simply created one while they were attempting to make a profit and sell books.

Because there is already a good private book encyclopedia available online, there is no reason for the Library of Congress or any government agency to craft one. It would be a waste of taxpayer money to ask the government to do what the market is already providing, and the results probably wouldn't be as good.

1 comment:

  1. I believe it's Amazon that has actually been methodically scanning in the full content of books for better search results. To avoid copyright infringement, a search that turns up book content will only return a small section of the book.

    The Great Library at Alexandria pales as a World Wonder next to the frictionless publishing clearinghouse that is the Internet.