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The Google initiative

A view from the library

We in the Dartmouth College Library have been following with great interest the news that Google intends to digitize millions of print volumes and make them available free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection. This project addresses a number of important digital content and technology issues-and does so on an unprecedented scale.

Deputy Librarian John Crane '69
Deputy Librarian John Crane '69 (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

To date, large digitization projects have been funded either by the government or through private foundation support. The American Memory Project of the Library of Congress broadly documents the American experience through written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps and sheet music. The scholarly journal archive JSTOR  has digitized complete back runs of core academic journals and was funded by the Mellon Foundation. The Foundation has also created ARTSTOR, which makes hundreds of thousands of digital images of art objects available online. As is often the case, these early projects have forged new territory, developing prototypes and establishing standards and best practices.

The next big project waiting to happen is a large-scale print-to-digital conversion of print volumes. With standards developed by earlier projects and with the aggregate experience of research libraries and commercial publishers in indexing, storing and retrieving information, the pieces are in place for a commercial enterprise to launch this next phase in developing a massive digital library. It is not surprising that Google, with solid commercial underpinnings and expertise in developing software to retrieve information from large databases, has stepped up to the plate. Quite naturally, they have turned to a few of the largest repositories of print volumes in the country to build the initial collection.

What does Google's initiative mean for Dartmouth? The most important effect will be vastly improved searching of the published literature-not only bibliographic information that currently is found in library catalogs and indexes, but, more importantly, the entire content of books and journals. That, in turn, is likely to lead to an increased demand for the physical volumes, at least until more user-friendly digital reader devices are invented to read text online. Books still under copyright will be in especially high demand because their full texts will not be available for reading online.

The Google project is likely to spawn other competing commercial ventures and, taken together, they have the potential to vastly increase access to information worldwide. By digitizing the great bulk of published literature, these commercial enterprises set the stage for the digitization of more specialized research collections by institutions such as Dartmouth. We welcome this development.

By JOHN CRANE

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08