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Google brings the British Library to the world

The British Library, in partnership with Google, is set to digitise more than 40-million pages of books from its vast collection. The pages, which comprise some 250 000 texts dating from 1700-1870, will be freely available to everyone.

According to the library’s spokespeople, “both organisations will work in partnership over the coming years to deliver this content free through Google Books and the British Library’s website. Google will cover all digitisation costs.”

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The ultimate goal of the project is for researchers, students and other users of the Library to be able to view historical items from anywhere in the world as well as copy, share and manipulate text for non-commercial purposes.

The initial phase of digitisation, therefore, covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from feminist pamphlets about Queen Marie-Antoinette (1791), to the invention of the first combustion engine-driven submarine (1858), and an account of a stuffed Hippopotamus owned by the Prince of Orange (1775).

Once digitised, these unique items will be available for full text search, download and reading through Google Books, as well as being searchable through the Library’s website and stored in perpetuity within the Library’s digital archive

The library’s Chief Executive, Dame Lynne Brindley spoke about the ways in which the project evoked the goals of her nineteenth century predecessors who had aimed “to give everybody access to as much of the world’s information as possible, to ensure that knowledge was not restricted to those who could afford private libraries”.

Having done so by buying books from around the world and making them available to all citizens by way of public libraries, it only makes sense that, in an age where the whole world is connected by the internet, its libraries should be too.

The digitisation of books is a time-consuming process which requires large numbers of volunteers. The kind of mass being undertaken by the British Library and Google does, however, mean that no one in the world with an internet connection is disadvantaged by their distance from the actual physical library building.

This is not, of course the first project of its kind. Brewster Kahle (check out the TED talk below) and the
Open Content Alliance (OCA) also aim to provide a permanent, publicly accessible archive of digitised texts. Previously, the alliance had sought to distance itself from Google’s approach to digitising books. Whereas Google once only sought permission to use copyrighted material if requested to do so, the OCA explicitly seeks the permission of a text’s copyright holder should copyright law still be applicable.

The Google and the British Library partnership — this is the 40th such collaboration between Google and a public library — avoid such complications by only scanning texts which are old enough to be out of copyright.

While Dame Lynn may exhort the efforts of her nineteenth century predecessors, but perhaps the best expression of what the digitisation and free distribution of books is really about, is to be found on the other side of the world. Inscribed on the door of the Boston Public Library are three simple words: Free to all.

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