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Google -- 21st Century Dewey Decimal System

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; 9:49 AM

The search engine wars get more interesting by the week, and once again it's Google making a big splash with news that it is partnering with some of the world's most prestigious universities to make it easier for Web users to scan the schools' vast library holdings.

The Google announcement, as several newspapers noted this morning, amounts to a major challenge to Amazon.com, which already makes the text of millions of books available to users through its own search engine. And while the Google move could help millions of Internet users gain access to information once buried deep in library stacks, it also raises big questions about whether a for-profit company should become a gatekeeper to such vast storehouses of knowledge.


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The New York Times explained more about Google's ambitious digital library project: The company "plans to announce an agreement today with some of the nation's leading research libraries and Oxford University to begin converting their holdings into digital files that would be freely searchable over the Web. It may be only a step on a long road toward the long-predicted global virtual library. But the collaboration of Google and research institutions that also include Harvard, the University of Michigan, Stanford and the New York Public Library is a major stride in an ambitious Internet effort by various parties. The goal is to expand the Web beyond its current valuable, if eclectic, body of material and create a digital card catalog and searchable library for the world's books, scholarly papers and special collections."
The New York Times: Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database (Registration required)

The Associated Press noted that "[s]canning books so they can be read through computers isn't new. Both Google and Amazon.com already have programs that offer online glimpses of new books while an assortment of other sites for several years have provide digital access to some material in libraries scattered around the country. But Google's latest commitment could have the biggest impact yet, given the breadth of material that the company hopes to put into its search engine, which has become renowned for its processing speed, ease of use and accuracy."
The Associated Press via washingtonpost.com: Google To Scan Books From Big Libraries (Registration required)

The San Francisco Chronicle said the plan "is the most ambitious yet to bring the world's books to the Web, a long held but only partially realized goal. If completed, it will also significantly increase the amount of material searchable on Google, which already leads the search industry with an index of 8 billion Web pages, and provide a potential advantage over rivals Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN." The Chronicle noted that Harvard and the New York Public Library "will make only a fraction of their expansive holdings available before deciding whether to expand the program."
The San Francisco Chronicle: Google, 5 Big Libraries To Offer Books

But just because Google got its foot in the door at Harvard etc. doesn't mean it can keep the likes of Yahoo and MSN out. The New York Times makes it clear that the door is wide open for Google's competitors to strike similar deals: "Because the Google agreements are not exclusive, the pacts are almost certain to touch off a race with other major Internet search providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo. Like Google, they might seek the right to offer online access to library materials in return for selling advertising, while libraries would receive corporate help in digitizing their collections for their own institutional uses."

Back to School

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Google officials said the effort is an expansion of the company's Google Print project, which searches the texts of books. Google Print, which started in October, initially invited only publishers, rather than libraries, to join." Google's Susan Wojcicki said the Google Print may eventually be combined with the company's recently unveiled Google Scholar service.
The Chronicle of Higher Education: Google Will Digitize and Search Millions of Books From 5 Leading Research Libraries

The Wall Street Journal notes that Google's "initiative has the potential to change the way people view their libraries, as they are able to find information from books without ever setting foot in the library itself." Here's how it will work: "Under the new program, consumers will be able to type key words into Google's main Web search site just as they currently do. Links to portions of text from the library books will then show up in the results. The books-related results will be set apart at the top of the search-result page. When users click on a book-related result, they will see images of the relevant scanned pages with their search terms highlighted. Depending on agreements with a book's publisher or author, the user will then be able to browse a portion of the book or the entirety. Starting today, some of the books already digitized at the University Michigan will go online. Piggybacking on a separate database, Google's service allows consumers to type in their ZIP Code and see if books that show up in their search results are owned by libraries near them."
The Wall Street Journal: Google Goes To College (Subscription required)

So how will Google scan millions of books quickly? The San Jose Mercury News explains: "Google is using its own, secret scanning and digitizing technology that it says will not harm older, delicate books. At the University of Michigan, the company has already equipped a special room with scanners and has been processing thousands of books a week since June. Books will roll into Google's Web search index as they are scanned and digitized. The full text of all publications will be scanned. But how much of each publication is accessible will depend on copyright restrictions. Books that are in the public domain will probably have their full text available through the search engine. For works that are protected by copyright -- the majority -- Google will show either bibliographic information or snippets of text that appear around a Google user's search term. When possible, in the search results, Google will point users to libraries where they can access the publications, or merchants online where they can purchase copies."
The San Jose Mercury News: Google To Digitize Millions of Books (Registration required)

Let the Hand-Wringing Begin

The Washington Post's coverage looked at the bigger implications: "The collaboration is likely to rekindle debate about the extent to which books should be available on the Internet. Some publishers worry that such efforts will depress sales. But the libraries say online access can be a boon to researchers and a benefit to people who do not have access to high-quality collections. Initially, some of the libraries plan to make available the full text of books that are in the public domain while offering snippets or excepts of books protected by copyright."
The Washington Post: Google To Digitize Some Library Collections (Registration required)


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