Like many avid readers and scholars I am thoroughly enamored of Amazon.com’s Search Inside the Book feature. The feature debuted October 23, 2003 with the complete text of more than 120,000 books. I can’t find any recent data on how large the digital archive has grown in the past several months, but the folks at Amazon have said they would eventually like to have their entire catalog full-text searchable.
Gary Wolf explores the different dimensions of such a huge undertaking in “The Great Library of Amazonia”, an article in this past December’s Wired. As much as I agree with Wolf (“We want books to be as accessible and searchable as the Web”), there is one aspect of the whole project I find troubling. And that is, who performs the actual labor of digitizing these thousands of books? It sounds counter-intuitive, but publishers must send Amazon a physical copy of every book to be included in the database. And then some person, somewhere, manually turns and scans every page of that book.
There are machines that will automate the scanning process, like the Kirtas APT BookScan 1200, which costs a cool $150,000 and can scan 1,200 pages in one hour. But Wolf reports that Amazon.com has sent shipments of books to India to be scanned by human workers. There, according to a related Wired article, the workers turn pages by hand and make 40 cents an hour.
So, it is an unsettling fact of this global economy that I can search Amazon’s catalog for a book with the phrase “imperialist lackeys and running dogs” and then buy that book for $11.20–an exorbitant sum for that worker in India, about 28 hours’ worth of work. The only consolation is that however little 40 cents an hour is, it is still twice India’s average daily wage. Of course, this speaks more to the inequities of global capitalism than to the generosity of Amazon.com.
UPDATE (23 July 2009)
In the years since I wrote this post, I’ve created a number of assignments that use Amazon’s full-text search feature, such as this writing assignment for Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle.