The New York Times has run a couple of fascinating articles recently in a series they call "Humanities 2.0," about "how digital tools are changing scholarship in history, literature and the arts." Scholars are using modern computers, databases, mapping and search tools to crunch data and analyze texts in new ways that were either impossible or too difficult and time consuming to do with physical artifacts. The latest piece last week was about the Victorian Books project, in which two historians of science from George Mason University are analyzing the titles of thousands of British books published from 1789 to th beginning of World War I to find patterns in the use of certain words and themes, hoping to shed light on what was truly on the minds of Victorian thinkers.
The project is using data from Google Books, which while not perfect, shows what kind of exciting things can be done with a universal digital library. Imagine the possibilties once resarchers are able to scan not just titles but full texts. Of course not everyone has full, university-grade access to research databases, even from Google, but there are tools available for the average consumer to perform a little textual analysis of their own.
DEVONthink is a Mac application that can crunch the contents of any bit of text you can throw into it, pointing out relationships with other documents in the archive beyond what you might find via a typical search. I've always thought DEVONthink was a little too high-powered for my needs, but I can imagine someone working on a heavily research nonfiction project (or even historical fiction that requires a lot of research) might find it useful. The real fun would start if you could dump your personal e-book library into one of these databases, but Amazon, Apple, B&N, and the rest of the big-time vendors are still a long way from giving you that kind of freedom with your copies. The digital music industry can lead by example here again, as most of the major players now offer copyright restriction-free music. Hopefully book publishers will learn the same lesson that utility and fair use trumps jealously guarding intellectual property against trumped up threats to revenue.