Think about it this way: I have my thousand-book library sitting in front of me, not 2 feet from where I’m typing right now. But Jeff Bezos has something that I don’t have: He’s got searchable digital versions of that library or a significant portion of it. (From a very unscientific survey that I performed, it seems like Amazon has about 50 percent of my library included in the “search inside” archive, though that percentage is bound to increase over time.) We tend to think of search requests as generally taking the form of “find me something I’ve never seen before.” But real-life search is often different: You’re looking for something you have seen before, but you’ve somehow mislaid or only half-remembered. You search for your glasses or your car keys. Or, in the case of books, you search for that paragraph about the Russian revolution’s impact on literacy rates that you read somewhere a few years ago. You know it’s in a book somewhere on your shelf, you just can’t remember which one.
“Search inside” could be the perfect solution to this common problem. Inside of staring at the bookshelves for an hour, pulling out volumes, and flipping randomly through the pages, you’d log onto Amazon and “search inside your library.” Of course, you’d have to describe the contents of your library to Amazon, but unless your library is of Jeffersonian proportions, that’s no more than an afternoon’s work.
A promising corollary effect of a “search inside your library” tool would be the creation of a new kind of personalized filter, this time run through other people’s book collections. We all know people who are better collectors and curators than they are writers or thinkers: You wouldn’t necessarily want to read an essay by them, but you’d love to spend a week browsing their library. By making Amazon libraries public, you could search through those libraries in addition to your own. You could always search the entire Amazon catalog, of course, but we all know how noisy open-ended searches can be. Most of the time, you’re not just looking for information about Sylvia Plath; you’re looking for a specific kind of information about Sylvia Plath. By organizing search around people and not just text strings, you can narrow those results dramatically.
A few steps forward in constructing the Memex.