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Updated 10:00 AM February 13, 2006
 

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Google project promotes public good

The Google Books Library Project to digitize more than 7 million University library volumes is about the social good of promoting and sharing knowledge—the very ideal of a university—President Mary Sue Coleman said Feb. 6 in an address to the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) in Washington, D.C.
President Mary Sue Coleman explains how the Google digitization project underway at U-M serves the public good. Marc Brodsky of the American Institute of Physics looks on. (Photo by Mike Waring, U-M Washington, D.C., Office)

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd of university press representatives, copyright lawyers and AAP officials, Coleman said the digitization project will protect thousands of important publications from disappearing due to damage and decay, while making their contents searchable by anyone with an Internet connection.

Last fall the AAP and the Authors' Guild sued Google, alleging the digitization of U-M Library books constituted copyright infringement. Digitization work continues at U-M, which is not a party to the lawsuit.

"The University of Michigan's partnership with Google offers three overarching qualities that help fulfill our mission: the preservation of books; worldwide access to information; and, most importantly, the public good of the diffusion of knowledge," she said. "We are the repository for the whole of human knowledge, and we must safeguard it for future generations. It is ours to protect and to preserve."

Google currently is scanning volumes and will provide the University with a digital copy, Coleman said in her talk, "Google, the Khmer Rouge and the Public Good." She said the copy will aid in preservation and research, and that copyrighted materials will remain "dark" until they are part of the public domain.

Coleman, who called the Google library project the most revolutionary enterprise she has experienced, said universities are places of deep exploration and bold experimentation, and great ideas are born there, including the artificial heart, the computer and Google.

"We provide solutions for our future, and I believe this venture with Google is one of the best answers we have to sharing knowledge on a global plane," she said. "The soul of scholarship is research. From the current to the ancient, we must make all information discoverable to faculty, students and the public."

The Google library project will result in a magnitude of discovery almost incomprehensible, she said. She called it an educator's dream, knowing that the vast body of information held in the libraries of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and the New York Public Library will be universally searchable and, in the case of public domain works, accessible.

"Using the technology of digitization and the reach of the Internet, connecting people with information creates a new demand for material that takes researchers in unexpected directions," she said. "That will expand exponentially with Google Book Search, whose technology and access will generate a new market for books and a financial benefit for authors and publishers—from highly successful publishing houses to struggling university presses.

Before signing on to the Google project, U-M had been digitizing between 5,000-8,000 volumes annually in an effort to preserve portions of its collection, she said. More than one-and-a-half million volumes are brittle and another 3.5 million books are at risk because they are printed on acidic paper that eventually will break down.

The problem is not U-M's alone. The Heritage Health Index—the first comprehensive survey to assess the condition and preservation needs of U.S. collections—found that the nation is at risk of losing millions of items that constitute the nation's heritage and culture because of a lack of conservation and planning.

Nature, politics and war always have been the mortal enemies of written works,Coleman said. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia took over the national library, throwing books into the street and burning them, while using the empty stacks as a pigsty. Less than 20 percent of the library survived.

"I know we cannot and should not imagine something like this happening in the U.S.; but history tells us that such events have happened," Coleman said. She cited a modern-day catastrophe—Hurricane Katrina—which destroyed more than 90 percent of one of the largest holdings of government materials in Louisiana stored at Tulane University.

"We absolutely must think beyond today—we know that these digital copies may be the only versions of work that survive into the future," Coleman said. "We also know that every book in our library, regardless of its copyright status today, will eventually fall into the public domain and be owned by society. As a public university, we have the unique task to preserve them all, and we will."

The Google library also will be a boon to the book industry, she said. It will expose researchers and casual readers alike to both the most popular and obscure publications, and drive users to libraries, bookstores and online retailers to buy more books, she said.

On a typical day in the United States, 60 million adults use an online search engine, Coleman said. Google estimates it has 380 million visitors a month.

The project also fits the objectives of the AAP, Coleman said, to aid publishers in exploring the opportunities of emerging technologies; promote the status of publishing in the United States and throughout the world; and expand the market for American books in all media.

"Google Book Search, with the books of the University of Michigan ... takes the corpus of human knowledge and puts it in the hands of anyone who wants it," she said. "It can, and will, change the world, and I want the University of Michigan to be part of it."

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