Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Infinite Library

Interesting aricle from MIT's "Technology Review"

The Infinite Library: "The digitization of the world’s enormous store of library books—an effort dating to the early 1990s in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere—has been a slow, expensive, and underfunded process. But last December librarians received a pleasant shock. Search-engine giant Google announced ambitious plans to expand its “Google Print” service by converting the full text of millions of library books into searchable Web pages. At the time of the announcement, Google had already signed up five 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 announcement, saying it will likely be remembered as the moment in history when society finally got serious about making knowledge ubiquitous. Brewster Kahle, founder of a nonprofit digital library known as the Internet Archive, calls Google’s move “huge....It legitimizes the whole idea of doing large-volume digitization.”

But some of the same people, including Kahle, believe Google’s efforts and others like it will force libraries and librarians to reëxamine their core principles—including their commitment to spreading knowledge freely. Letting a for-profit organization like Google mediate access to library books, after all, could either open up long-hidden reserves of human wisdom or constitute the first 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 stuff very quickly—well, what’s not to like?” says Abby Smith, director of programs for the Council on Library and Information Resources, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that helps libraries manage digital transformation. “But some librarians are very concerned about the terms of access and are very concerned that a commercial entity will have control over materials that libraries have collected.”

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