Culture is future » Innovation and digital

06.28.2011

Always Further - The British Library opens its doors to Google: two centuries of documents will be soon online

britishlibrary40 million pages from one of the biggest collections of historic books, pamphlets and periodicals are to be made available on the Internet. Indeed, the British Library announced last week a program to digitize 250,000 books as part of an agreement with Google Books.

They will be available on the library websiteGoogle Books and Europeana, the European digital library and stored in the archives of the library. Readers will be allowed to view, search and download the works at no charge.

The 250,000 selected documents are "a huge range of printed books, pamphlets and periodicals covering a period that saw the French and Industrial Revolutions, The Battle of Trafalgar and the Crimean War, the invention of rail travel and of the telegraph, the beginning of UK income tax, and the end of slavery" said the British Library, which chose to focus on books that are not yet available for free on the web. Among the first works to go online is a Spanish inventor Narciso Monturiol's 1858 plan for one of the world's first submarines. These documents are books published between 1700 and 1870, so out-of-copyright documents.

Google is covering the cost of digitizing; the project will take 3 years.  The Internet giant has already scanned around 13m books in similar partnerships with more than 40 libraries around the world including those of Stanford and Harvard University in the United States or those of the Netherlands, Rome, Florence or Austria in Europe.  The Google partnership is in the line of the digitization announced last year of 350 years of newspapers – and follows the collaboration with Microsoft which saw the digitization of 65,000 19th century books.

The library chief executive Dame Lynne Brindley said that the scheme was an extension of the "proud tradition of the library's predecessors in the 19th Century" to provide access to knowledge to everyone. However, like most large-scale digitization, the initiative met strong resistance from the publishing world. Others raise the question of audiences:  will readers still go to the library? Lynne Brindley stays confident on this subject, arguing that seeing an original material and reading it online is very different.

The project, while enormous, is still a small fraction of the library's collection, British temple of knowledge, which totals more than 150 million items representing every age of written civilization, including books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. "If you viewed about five items a day it would take you 80,000 years to get through the lot," said Lynne Brindley.

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