Robert Darnton has written an interesting article about the Google Book project in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. It goes through the usual list of pros and cons (access is good, copyright extension is bad, commercial control of the digitized version of books is scary) and, overall, is pretty much a repetition of the conventional wisdom surrounding the Google Book project.

However, as afraid as I ,and most everyone else is, of a single enterprise having control of this project, I believe he is overall too skeptical. In addition to the added access to works outside of a collection (which he mentions) and the ability to use books in ways through text searching (which he doesn’t mention), there are many other minor advantages that the mere existence of this project is allowing.

  1. First, the University of Wisconsin, where I attend, is a participating member of the Google books project. We send them books to digitize, but in addition, we receive a digital copy of our own which we deposit in a repository called Hathi Trust . This copy is outside Google’s control. Granted, not all libraries are involved in this program, so it follows that not all books in the projects will be in the trust, but it is some and even if the Google project ends (which it conceivably will someday) the digitized copies will remain in use.
  2. Secondly, this project will, potentially, reduce Interlibrary loan costs. And this is not just because people will be able to see the full work online. Patrons can preview books that, maybe, they saw referred to in a bibliography. Maybe the will realize it doesn’t at all fit their needs and not place a request. I, when first told this by a librarian, was skeptical. But it has happened to me personally twice. And I’ve seen it happen to a patron at the reference desk where I work at least once. Those costs deferred, though minimal, can be used elsewhere.
  3. Finally, a possible advantage. . .As the availability of full digital works becomes even more integrated into academia, there’s potential for spillover of interest into other digital initiatives. There can be increased interest in Open Access journals or Institutional Repositories (if these are ever integrated into the OPAC or library system in a useful way). Who knows where the spillover may go? It could alert faculty to how their copyright privileges are being abused. It could spark an interest in self-archiving or steer money into digital initiatives. There’s potential.

We in academia are always skeptical of commercial interests. And there is certainly a history to help justify this feeling (i.e. journal prices). But the potential in this seems to necessitate the risks. An operation of this takes money, money that libraries do not have. So if they need to make some money to justify the costs, that’s something I can understand.