The Books Google Could Open

THE NATION’S COLLEGES and universities should support Google’s controversial project to digitize great libraries and offer books online. It has the potential to do a lot of good for higher education in this country.

The rapid annual increase in the number of new books and journals, coupled with far-reaching technological innovations, is changing relations between academia and the publishing industry. In the recent past, college and university libraries collaborated with publishers in creating online collections of selected published works. But now many in the publishing industry are opposing Book Search, the new digital catalog of published works created by Google, even as it is being hailed by many librarians as a way to expand access to millions of published works.

CommentaryMany are opposing Google’s Book Search even as it is being hailed as a way to expand access to millions of published works.

Only a fraction of books published today is printed in editions of more than a few thousand copies. And the great works of even the recent past are quickly passing into obscurity. Google has joined with major libraries to make it possible for all titles to remain accessible to users.

Book Search is a Herculean undertaking, digitizing both new and old works housed in some of the world’s top libraries—Stanford [CA], Harvard [MA], the University of Michigan, the University of California system, the New York Public Library, and Oxford [UK]—and rendering them searchable through Google’s powerful website. Book Search d'es not permit users to read entire copyrighted works on screen; it simply makes those works searchable through keywords, quickly and at no cost, and allows readers to view several lines from the book. Users can look at an entire page from any book not under copyright protection.

This powerful new tool will make less well-known written works or hard-to-find research materials more accessible to students, teachers, and others around the world. Geography will not hinder a student’s quest to find relevant material. Libraries can help to revive interest in underused books. And sales of books will likely increase as a result.

Book Search comes at a time when college and university libraries are hard-pressed to keep up with the publishing and technology revolutions. Budgets are stretched, and libraries must now specialize and rely on interlibrary loan for books in other subjects.

Student and faculty research also has been limited by what is on the shelves of the campus library. A student can identify a book through an online library catalog, but the book’s content remains unknown. It must then be shipped —an expense that may not be worthwhile if the book isn’t what was expected.

With Book Search, it’s easy to imagine a history student at a small college in Nebraska using the internet to find an out-of-print book held only by a library in New York. Instead of requesting delivery of the book, he or she can read a snippet of it from Google’s online catalog and request it by interlibrary loan if it seems useful. Even better, the student can purchase the book in the same session at the computer.

Unfortunately, Book Search has vociferous critics. Some publishers have filed lawsuits to stop the project, alleging that Google is violating copyright law. Legal questions will be settled in the courts, but those of us who are researchers and readers of books and articles ought to be disturbed by the loss of trust among publishers and libraries which a decade ago embraced technological innovation and collaboration.

Project MUSE, begun in 1993 as a pioneering joint effort of Johns Hopkins University’s [MD] Press and its Milton S. Eisenhower Library, makes available electronic “bundles” of current issues of journals to students and teachers in scattered locations. And JSTOR—a coalition of journal publishers and libraries formed in the mid-1990s to create a reliable online collection of hundreds of older, little-used scholarly journals—has brought these specialized works back into common use.

Colleges and universities have con- flicting interests in this dispute. Some operate their own publishing houses and hope to sell books. Some faculty members are authors and hope to earn royalties. But the major interest of colleges and universities is as users of information—helping thousands of students and teachers find what they need and making these materials available. In this regard, the advantages of Google’s service are enormous, especially for smaller colleges without huge budgets for library purchases.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that publishers have resisted an important technology instead of figuring out how to use it to advantage. Music publishers a century ago tried to stop the manufacture of player pianos because they feared that sales of sheet music would decline. In fact, player pianos helped increase the number of buyers of sheet music.

New technologies and new ways of doing business can be disruptive, but they are inevitable. The transition to new technologies can be smooth or rough, depending on the attitudes of the institutional actors. The goal is to make more of the world’s information readily available to users.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

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