Thursday, January 27, 2011

The New York Times tries something new: Annotated text via prostitution

The New York Times of January 27, 2011 has a blog entry: A Guide to Houses No Gentleman Would Dare to Frequent by Alison Leigh Cowan.  It's an examination of a little known guidebook from 1870 which reviews 150 brothels existing in the city at that time. The copy that Cowan found is located in the New-York Historical Society.

What interests me about the article is that the Times has gone a step further than usual, and has reproduced a digital copy of the entire book.  This was my first encounter with, apparently a new place that allows the Times to store large amounts of text (51 pages of school complaints about  Jared Loughner, 26 pages of poll results, etc.) to supplement articles in the newspaper.  Most of the documents have not undergone OCR, but the guide to prostitution has (unfortunately rather poorly - it would have easy to correct a 32-page book).

What really got my attention was that they have added annotations by Cowan to the digital book, using excepts from her blog post to explain portions of the text.

Whoa!  This is a way to go.  There have been so many attempts to create a web tool for annotating web pages and documents.  But to be able to do it and share it with others is part of the key.  

Of course I wish libraries could lead the troops in doing this.  I know there are so many wanted texts that people want to pour over and dissect, like a page of Talmud.  Why aren't the tools out there, and why aren't libraries (even academic libraries) at the forefront of this opportunity?  I can forsee Wikimedia setting up a WikiTexts website to deal with public domain texts and the desire to study, analyze, and elucidate them among a community.