Home' Technology Review : May 2005 Contents 56
"Google Print" service by converting the full text of millions of li-
brary books into searchable Web pages. At the time of the an-
nouncement, Google had already signed up ve partners,
including the libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and the
University of Michigan, along with the New York Public Library.
More are sure to follow.
Most librarians and archivists are ecstatic about the announce-
ment, saying it will likely be remembered as the moment in his-
tory when society nally got serious about making knowledge
ubiquitous. Brewster Kahle, founder of a nonpro t digital library
known as the Internet Archive, calls Google s move "huge....It le-
gitimizes the whole idea of doing large-volume digitization."
But some of the same people, including Kahle, believe
Google s e orts and others like it will force libraries and librari-
ans to reëxamine their core principles---including their commit-
ment to spreading knowledge freely. Letting a for-pro t
organization like Google mediate access to library books, after
all, could either open up long-hidden reser ves of human wisdom
or constitute the rst step toward the privatization of the world s
literary heritage. "You d think that if libraries are serious about
providing access to high-quality material, the idea of somebody
digitizing that stu very quickly---well, what s not to like?" says
Abby Smith, director of programs for the Council on Library and
Infor mation Resources, a Washington, DC, nonpro t that helps
libraries manage digital transformation. "But some librarians
are very concerned about the terms of access and are very con-
cerned that a commercial entity will have control over materials
that libraries have collected."
They re also concerned about the book business itself. Pub-
lishers and authors count on strict copyright laws to prevent copy-
ing and reuse of their intellectual property until after they ve
recouped their investments. But libraries, which allow many
readers to use the same book, have always enjoyed something of
an exemption from copyright law. Now the mass digitization of
library books threatens to make their content just as portable---or
piracy prone, depending on one s point of view---as digital music.
And that directly involves libraries in the clash between big me-
dia companies and those who would like all information to be
free---or at least as cheap as possible.
Whatever happens, transfor ming millions more books into
bits is sure to change the habits of library patrons. What, then,
will become of libraries themselves? Once the knowledge now
trapped on the printed page moves onto the Web, where people
can retrieve it from their homes, o ces, and dorm rooms,
libraries could turn into lonely caverns inhabited mainly by
preservationists. Checking out a library book could become as
anachronistic as using a pay phone, visiting a travel agent to book
a ight, or sending a handwritten letter by post.
Surprisingly, however, most backers of library digitization ex-
pect exactly the opposite e ect. They point out that libraries in
the United States are gaining users, despite the advent of the
Web, and that libraries are being constructed or renovated at an
unprecedented rate (architect Rem Koolhaas s Seattle Central
Library, for example, is the new jewel of that city s downtown).
And they predict that 21st-century citizens will head to their local
libraries in even greater numbers, whether to use their free Inter-
net terminals, consult reference specialists, or nd physical cop-
ies of copyrighted books. (Under the Google model, only snippets
from these books will be viewable on the Web, unless their au-
thors and publishers agree other wise.) And considering that the
ood of new digital material will make the job of classifying, cata-
loguing, and guiding readers to the right texts even more de-
manding, librarians could become busier than ever.
"I chafe at the presumption that once you digitize, there is
nothing left to do," says Donald Waters, a former director of the
Digital Library Federation who now oversees the Andrew W.
Mellon Foundation s extensive philanthropic investments in
projects to enhance scholarly communication. "There is an enor-
mous amount to do, and digitizing is just scratching the surface."
Digitization itself, of course, is no small challenge. Scanning
the pages of brittle old books at high speed without damaging
them is a problem that s still being addressed, as is the question
of how to store and preserve their content once it s in digital form.
The Google initiative has also ampli ed a long-standing debate
among librarians, authors, publishers, and technologists over
how to guarantee the fullest possible access to digitized books,
including those still under copyright (which, in the United States,
means everything published after January 1, 1923). The stakes
are high, both for Google and for the library community---and the
technologies and business agreements being framed now could
determine how people use libraries for decades to come.
"Industry has resources to invest that we don t have anymore
and never will have," points out Gary Strong, university librarian
at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has its own
aggressive digitization programs. "And they ve come to libraries
because we have massive repositories of information. So we re
natural partners in this venture, and we all bring di erent skills
to the table. But we re rede ning the table itself. Now that we re
de ning new channels of access, how do we make sure all this in-
formation is usable?"
Breaching the Walls
Even for authorized users, access to the Bodleian Library s seven
million volumes is anything but instant. If you are an Oxford
undergraduate in need of a book, you rst send an electronic
request to a worker in the library s underground stacks. (Before
2000 or so, you would have handed a written request slip to a
librarian, who would have relayed it to the stacks via a 1940s-era
network of pneumatic tubes.) The worker locates the book in a
warren of movable shelves (a space-saving innovation conceived
in 1898 by for mer British prime minister William Gladstone)
and places it in a plastic bin. An ingenious system of conveyor
belts and elevators, also built in the 1940s, carries the bin back to
any of seven reading rooms, where it is unpacked, and the book
is handed over to you.
The process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several
hours. But once you nally have the book, don t even think about
taking it back to your dorm room for further study. The Bodleian
is a noncirculating legal deposit library, meaning that it is en-
titled to a free copy of every book published in the United King-
dom and the Republic of Ireland, and it guards those copies
jealously. The library takes in tens of thousands of books every
year, but the legend is that no book has ever left its walls.
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