Roving thoughts and provocations

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How Google Can Save America’s Books

Félix Vallotton

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search could be mitigated if Google were willing to contribute some of its data and expertise to the creation of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Google has demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?

To dismiss this goal as naive or utopian would be to ignore digital projects that have proven their worth and feasibility throughout the last twenty years. All major research libraries have digitized parts of their collections. Since 1995 the Digital Library Federation has worked to combine their catalogues or “metadata” into a general network. More ambitious enterprises such as the Internet Archive, Knowledge Commons, and Public.Resource.Org have attempted digitization on a larger scale. They may be dwarfed by Google, but several countries are now determined to out-Google Google by scanning the entire contents of their national libraries.

In December 2009 President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced that he would make €750 million available for digitizing the French cultural “patrimony.” The National Library of the Netherlands aims to digitize within ten years every Dutch book, newspaper, and periodical produced from 1470 to the present. National libraries in Japan, Australia, Norway, and Finland are digitizing virtually all of their holdings; and Europeana, an effort to coordinate digital collections on an international scale, will have made over ten million objects—from libraries, archives, museums, and audiovisual holdings—freely accessible online by the end of 2010.

If these countries can create national digital libraries, why can’t the United States? Because of the cost, some would argue. Far more works exist in English than in Dutch or Japanese, and the Library of Congress alone contains 30 million volumes. Estimates of the cost of digitizing one page vary enormously, from ten cents (the figure cited by Brewster Kahle, who has digitized over a million books for the Internet Archive) to ten dollars, depending on the technology and the required quality. But it should be possible to digitize everything in the Library of Congress for less than Sarkozy’s €750 million—and the cost could be spread out over a decade.

The greatest obstacle is legal, not financial. Presumably, the DPLA would exclude books currently being marketed, but it would include millions of books that are out of print yet covered by copyright, especially those published between 1923 and 1964, a period when copyright coverage is most obscure, owing to the proliferation of “orphans”—books whose copyright holders have not been located. Congress would have to pass legislation to protect the DPLA from litigation concerning copyrighted, out-of-print books. The rights holders of those books would have to be compensated, yet many of them, especially among academic authors, might be willing to forgo compensation in order to give their books new life and greater diffusion in digitized form. Several authors protested against the commercial character of Google Book Search and expressed their readiness to make their work available free of charge in memoranda filed with the New York District Court.

Perhaps even Google itself could be enlisted in the cause. It has digitized about two million books in the public domain. It could turn them over to the DPLA as the foundation of a collection that would grow to include more recent books—at first those from the problematic period of 1923–1964, then those made available by their rights holders. Google would lose nothing by this generosity; each digitized book that it made available could, if other donors agree, be identified as a contribution from Google; and it might win admiration for its public-spiritedness.

Even if Google refused to cooperate, a coalition of foundations could provide enough to finance the DPLA, and a coalition of research libraries could provide the books. By working systematically through their holdings, a great collection could be formed. It would conform to the highest standards in its bibliographical apparatus, its scanning, its editorial decisions, and its commitment to preservation for the use of future generations.

Should the Google Book Search agreement not be upheld by the court, its unraveling would come at an extraordinary moment in the development of an information society. We have now reached a period of fluidity, uncertainty, and opportunity. Things have come undone, and they can be put together in new ways, subordinating private profit to the public good and providing everyone with access to a commonwealth of culture.

Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices, the economics of scholarly publishing, the unbalanced budgets of libraries, and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. Instead, it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It’s an appeal to change the system.

This post is drawn from the article “The Three Jeremiads,” which will appear in the January 13 issue of The New York Review.

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