Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Google: A Modern Day Franklin

According to a New York Times story, Google "plans to announce an agreement today with some of the nation's leading research libraries and Oxford University to begin converting their holdings into digital files that would be freely searchable over the Web." For someone like me, a (eventual) practicing historian who will most likely not be able to put in the time to become affiliated with any particular institution, this is great news. In history, solid research is only possible if one has access to previous sources in the field of study. Presently, without institutional affiliation, that access is limited. Public libraries still can be extremely useful, but scholarly libraries are usually the only place to find rare, out of print and extremely specific works.
"Having the great libraries at your fingertips allows us to build on and create great works based on the work of others," said Brewster Kahle, founder and president of the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based digital library that is also trying to digitize existing print information.

The agreements to be announced today will allow Google to publish the full text of only those library books old enough to no longer be under copyright. For copyrighted works, Google would scan in the entire text, but make only short excerpts available online.

Each agreement with a library is slightly different. Google plans to digitize nearly all the eight million books in Stanford's collection and the seven million at Michigan. The Harvard project will initially be limited to only about 40,000 volumes. The scanning at Bodleian Library at Oxford will be limited to an unspecified number of books published before 1900, while the New York Public Library project will involve fragile material not under copyright that library officials said would be of interest primarily to scholars.
Google will sell advertising to generate revenue to support the project, similar to how ads are present whenever a search query is made currently. This could open the door for some amusing results, of course. Suppose I was looking for a book on the "Jack Tars" (merchant seamen of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras). I could find a book, a few scholarly journal articles...and an add for a paving company! This project strikes me as an extension of the original vision of Benjamin Franklin, founder of the first public library in Philadelphia. Thus, Franklin's true spirit seems to be living on via Google and I suspect he would have approved of Google's approach: increase the spread of knowledge among the masses and make a buck in the process!

UPDATE: Here is Harvard University's press release regarding the project.

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