<%@ codePage="65001" %> A Great Wall of Scholarship
A Great Wall of Scholarship 1999.11
China's "Complete Library" put on CD-ROM By Dan Gillmor

In 1772, the Chinese Emperor Qianlong decided it was time to bring all written human knowledge under one roof. He asked - in the way that emperors "ask"- his subjects to submit all their books for the collection he wanted to create.

An army of scholars, copyists, clerks and others went to work. They cataloged tens of thousands of books and re-crafted them into 3,460 works under four classifications: Jing (Classics), Shi (history), Zi (Philosophy) and Ji (Literature).

The pages of what is known as Siku Quanshu - Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature - use standardized grids and characters, and everything is catalogued through summaries, author biographies and the like. To call it the biggest work every is almost to trivialize it. With 4.7 million pages and 800 milllion Chinese characters, Siku Quanshu is awesomely grand, a Great Wall of scholarship.

It took 10 years to complete the first set, and another eight years to make six copies in the original style. Only three of the originals have survived various foreign invasions and other calamities, and they're housed under lock and key in museum vaults.

Now, thanks to digital technology, Siku Quanshu is more widely available. Digital Heritage Publishing Ltd. (www.skqs.com), a Hong Kong based company, has turned the enormous collection into an equally enormous database, adding the kinds of tools that will enhance scholarship: searching, annotation, hyperlinking and much more.

Everything about the electronic Siku Quanshu says quality. The CD-ROMs and printed documentation, for example, come in color-coded boxes os plush they might contact champagne or jewelry.

The software is equally fine, with beyond-faithful reproduction and display. You can see what amounts to a digital photograph of the original, and a then look at an extremely similar rendition that incorporates all of the database features such as searching. One especially nifty tough is a vital magnifying glass - move it across the screen and individual characters almost leap out of the text for deeper analysis.

Gabriel C.M. Yu is chairman of IT Ventures Ltd., which controls Digital Heritage. ITVentures spans many different businesses, including an online seller of books and ethnic products called Chinese Books Cyber Store Ltd. (www.chinesebooks.net), which Yu and his colleagues hope to turn into an Asian Amazon.com.

But I stopped by his offices, high in a skyscraper overlooking Hong Kong's fabled harbor, mostly to hear about the Siku Quanshu. I'd been told about it by the fried of a friend in Silicon Valley - and it was everything I'd heard.

Yu takes justified pride in the project. He's spend about $8 million so far and isn't sure when or if he'll make back his investment through sales of the database, which spans more than 180 CD-ROMs and costs thousands of dollars per copy. Libraries are the major customers so far.

He doesn't seem to care much about direct return on this investment, for several reasons. For one thing, the project has been as much a labor of love as a business deal. But the technology his team created for this project seems likely to pay back many times over.

Some of the techniques are quite complex, largely because of the language. The electronic Siku Quanshu was developed using an extremely comprehensive Chinese character set. It's a based on Unicode, a system under which characters from many languages can be represented in ways on which international standards bodies agree.

Unicode includes traditional and simplified Chinese characters, reflecting both ancient and modern writing forms. The Siku Quanshu character set includes thousands of other Chinese characters, a total of more than 32,000, but it remains based on Unicode. This remains based on Unicode. This means the electronic version can be displayed on computers running different language version s of Windows, and it opens the possibility of someday running the product on other computing platforms.

The product also incorporates a powerful search engine, among many other useful tools developed for this project. The engine recognizes traditional and simplified characters and senses related words, returning better results. Yu hopes to turn that work into a second-generation Chinese Internet serach engine. The scanning and optical-character recognition technology developed for this project also could be put to use creating digital libraries of the future, Yu believes.

Digital Heritage ran the project, but it had a lot of help. Among the contrbutors were an army of modern scholars and researchers. Development partners included major universities in China, and the company has lined up publishing partners for inside and outside China.

Will there be an online version? Maybe, but not right away. Yu noted the recent decision by the Encyclopedia Britannica to move online, but he's in no rush to do the same with this work. For on thing, Britannica had competition from Microsoft, which created the lower-quality but much cheaper Encarta encyclopedia. Siku Quanshu is one of a kind, and the business case for another electronic version is questionable.

Yu's business instincts are obviously acute. He saw the flowering of the Information Age earlier than most people here, and he has been building some remarkable enterprises.

But I had the feeling he'll be happiest to be remembered for what he and his team have done with Siku Quanshu. Framed commendations from the top museums in Taipei and Beijing hold prominent positions on his office wall.

Any Yu, when I asked him why he'd embarked on this multi-year project, talked about contributing to his culture, to the researchers who'll be able to far more learning about the past that they could ever have done with the original volumes.

"We have changed people's ideas" about what is possible, he said.

Maybe we could all change our minds, or at least evolve them a bit. These techniques and others will help us collect and make better use of the knowledge we're accumulating and creating today. Emperors may start such projects, but it is all of humanity that needs to use them.

Please send your comments and questions to webmaster@sikuquanshu.com or fax to (852)27308686
2004 Digital Heritage Publishing Limited.
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