UC Libraries Join the Google Books Library Project

By Tom Peters | Tom PetersSoon after Google announced in late 2004 the collaborative project—currently called the "Google Books Library Project," involving the five research libraries of Stanford, Michigan, Harvard, Oxford, and the New York Public Library—to scan millions of books, the five libraries became known as the "G5 Group."

When the G5 Group was mentioned in conversations among librarians, often there was at least a note of despair or hostility toward the G5 Group for collaborating with the "enemy," or for, perhaps, significantly altering the future course of research and research librarianship without consulting with representative samples of these communities.

Longing to be a member of the G5 Group was not one of the dominant emotions I detected in the conversations I heard about their involvement in Google's massive digitization project. But evidently there is some longing out there.

First, the Library of Congress began to dabble with Google in this project, which is not surprising. Then the University of California Libraries System—which collectively, across its 100 libraries, claims to have the largest research collection in the world—began serious discussions with Google, as evidenced by an article that appeared in the Daily Californian in July. Reports in other publications, such as the Los Angeles Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, followed, culminating in the official August 9 press release that an agreement had been struck.

The press release emphasizes:
  • the public trust upon which this massive collection has been built;
  • the need for quick and easy means of discoverability;
  • the possibilities for new and accelerated forms of scholarly inquiry; and
  • the archival need for massive digital back-up copies of printed books in collections on or near areas of frequent seismic activity.
The UC Libraries' System already is a member of the Open Content Alliance, which has also undertaken a very large-scale book-digitization project. The OCA, however, has intentionally limited its scanning efforts to books clearly in the public domain, which is estimated to be only twenty percent of the books held by the various libraries across the UC System. By becoming a major player in the Google Project, the UC System could potentially have thirty-four million books scanned, with one master copy going to Google and another staying with the UC System.

The Chronicle article quotes Adam Smith from Google stating that they are in active conversation with other research libraries with interesting special collections. Smith hinted that some of these libraries are located outside the United States, with Oxford University as the precedent. Perhaps before long the majority of the member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries will be Google partners.

There has been much speculation about how Google plans to generate revenue from this massive digitization project. For the libraries involved, avoiding the cost of a massive digitization project seems to be a major motivation. In the Daily Californian article, Dan Greenstein is attributed to have said, but is not directly quoted, that through the use of Google's top-secret and proprietary scanning process, the cost to scan a book will be only $1 or $2, compared to approximately $30 via the process being used by the Open Content Alliance.

Other monetary advantages may redound to the Google libraries as well. For example, Google recently announced plans to build an advertising office that will employ approximately 1,000 people in Ann Arbor, which coincidentally is the home of the University of Michigan, one of the original G5 Group members. All politics, as they say, are local.
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