Any day now, trucks will begin arriving weekdays at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin to begin hauling away thousands of books. The books will be ferried to undisclosed locations to be scanned and put into a database posted on Google.

By scanning books from libraries, Google is creating the largest digital database of books in the world through the Google Books Library Project. The effort began in December 2004 and makes books searchable online, the same way Google makes Web sites searchable. For copyrighted books, users see only bibliographic information and book snippets. Books in the public domain, however, can be downloaded from cover to cover.

Because of the promise of digital archives and preservation of books, libraries nationwide are participating in the program.

However, the project has been bogged down by controversy and copyright infringement lawsuits. While Google says the project is only meant to make books more accessible to the public and to generate interest at the benefit of authors and publishers, critics argue Google's scanning of copyrighted material - although it's not publicly accessible - is entirely illegal. 

 

Full Speed Ahead

Despite ongoing court cases, Google is moving forward with its project, scanning and digitizing thousands of volumes of books each day from libraries worldwide, including the New York Public Library, the Complutense University of Madrid and the National Library of Catalonia (and four affiliate Catalonian libraries).

With millions of books available electronically on Google Book Search, the company's Web site purports that it's "expanding the frontiers of human knowledge."

"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," said Adam Smith, product management director at Google. "That mission would be incomplete if we did not include books. There's an incredible wealth of knowledge held on bookshelves in libraries and publishing houses, and we want to help people find it."

Google is also piloting the World Digital Library with the Library of Congress. The project is an online collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, posters, stamps and other library materials. Google has contributed $3 million to the project.

The Austin UT Library, which is part of the UT Libraries system, has the fifth largest academic library system in the United States containing more than 9 million books. The Austin UT Library joined the Google Library Project in January 2007 with an initial six-year contract agreement to digitize 1 million books, although all 9 million books will be considered for digitization. Library officials are ironing out details of book handling with representatives from Google, who are particularly interested in UT's Latin America collection, regarded as the nation's most comprehensive.

Similar to other library partnerships, books will be scanned by Google and approved by the university. In return for their involvement in the project, the UT Libraries will receive digital files of scanned books, which will help with long-term preservation of the volumes. All books, no matter how carefully they are handled, will deteriorate over time, said Doug Barnett, chief of staff for the UT Libraries.

"There are many ways we go about safeguarding the books, and there are different levels of safeguards depending on how valuable or rare or fragile the item is, but to the degree we let anybody use them, there's always a risk of damage. And in terms of very long term, even carefully handled, the materials will eventually deteriorate," Barnett said. "It's not a complete solution by any means, or the only way the libraries are approaching this, but it does have the value of helping preserve the information. Even if the item itself was to somehow be lost or destroyed, there would be a digital copy of it."

 

Increased Exposure

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer