Thursday, December 16, 2004

Towards an online academic library

Exciting news in today's Guardian:

Under a deal announced yesterday between the internet search engine Google and five of the world's top libraries, some of the globe's greatest literary treasures will soon be freely available for all to read on the world wide web. Oxford University's world-renowned Bodleian Library will initially make an estimated 1m books from its 19th-century collection available to Google, while Stanford University and the University of Michigan in the US will be contributing their libraries of a combined 15m titles. Also taking part in the scheme on a test basis are Harvard University and the New York Public Library.

The project will involve scanning millions of titles - many of them rare and delicate - and making the text available on the internet via Google searches. It is a process which experts have predicted could take as long as 10 years. "This project won't necessarily have an end date," said Fabio Selmoni, the managing director of Google's European advertising sales and operations. "As far as Google is concerned, it's very exciting to move into a non-digitised area and bring it to people all around the world. We're working very closely with libraries and publishers to make as much information available as possible."

... The scheme could revolutionise academic life by putting information at the fingertips of readers instead of being filed away in musty library catalogues. Students, scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike will be able to look at books which were previously out of reach - including works by Charles Darwin, Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Babbage - simply by connecting to the internet. "At the moment you can come and look at these texts if you have a bona fide scholastic interest," said Nicky Old, a spokeswoman for Oxford University. "Now you will be able to do it from the comfort of your home or office. And the benefit of being on the internet is that it's not just accessible, but searchable as well."

I love the idea of making the resources of academia - and, let's face it, every university is ultimately only as good as its library - available outside the academy. I visited the Turnbull for the first time during a recent trip to Wellington - got busted by a very stern librarian for bringing 'the naked tip of a ballpoint pen' into the hallowed space - and what impressed me most was the way that the unpublished and rare texts there are available to all visitors, not just those affiliated to one or another academic institution. A comprehensive online academic library would be a boon to scholars at isolated and small uiniversities, as well as freelance researchers and autodidacts, because it would do away with the need for the tiresome practice of interloaning.

Google's won't of course be the first online library, though it will be by far the most comprehensive. Project Gutenberg blazed the trail, and has put over six thousand titles online without relying on any of the sort of corporate cash Google is swimming in after its recent $1 bn dollar share float. I've been a regular at the Marxist Internet Archive , which is the product of years of work by an international, nonsectarian team, and which seems to get bigger every passing week!


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