Thursday, April 21, 2005

Going Digital

There's a detailed and lengthy article about the digitization of books at Technology Review. It talks quite a bit about Google's digitization plans and what that might mean for libraries, general readers and scholars:

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.
I've been thinking all along that digitization is a good thing, but the article raises some important questions. After reading it I am still pro-digitization but I realize now it isn't as straightforward and easy as I had been thinking. I also came away with the impression that Google will be charging users to access the digitized books. I hope I that's not true.