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Magazines > Information Today > December 2005
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Information Today

Vol. 22 No. 11 — December 2005

War and Peace
by Dick Kaser

It was a time when ladies wore corsets and men adjourned to parlors to smoke cigars. The economy was based on widgets and measured in bushels. Imperialism was in vogue.

Welcome to the marvelous retro world that will be revealed online when Google finishes digitizing the world’s knowledge that is no longer under copyright.

I’m talking about the public domain collections of the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the only two (of five) libraries in the Google library digitization project that have works that can be digitized without a court ruling.   

As we go to press, five leading U.S. publishers have filed suit, under the auspices of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), against Google for its library digitization project. In September, The Authors Guild filed a class action suit on behalf of authors whose copyrighted works are up for scanning. And last May, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) issued a widely publicized letter of protest. 

Google’s mass digitization effort, which has been called industrial-sized scanning by some and ruthless piracy by others, seems to have ticked off everyone so far.

The NYPL and Oxford University have generally kept out of the fray. “We decided to stay on the right side of publishers,” explained the Bodleian Library’s Ronald Milne while keynoting the ITI’s Internet Librarian International conference

He said Oxford University and Google will digitize 19th century and earlier out-of-copyright materials—1 million to 1.5 million items. The process is expected to take 3 years. But at the end of the day, what will Google’s project yield if the pending legal actions halt the digitization of anything other than books in the public domain?

To find out, I went to the Bodleian Library’s online card catalog ( to see what might be up for digitization. I limited my browsing to works prior to 1920, the year that will actually serve as the cut-off point for Google’s uncontested scanning project.

I discovered a mixed bag. It’s good news for the humanities, since a person could make an excellent classical education out of the great works of literature coming up for public search and full display once the Oxford books are scanned. Name a classic and it will be here, free for the reading. Philosophers should also not protest.

However, scientists may not be as impressed with the pre-modern pickings. What meaningful medical advice will be contained in the thousands of general reference works in the Oxford archive that deal with such things as consumption?

But, who am I to judge? Wonderful discoveries could be made.

But socially, how will a world enamored with technology and married to scientific thought react to the Romantics and Victorians? And how about the mostly liberal and wacky ideas that transformed Western monarchies into democracies and working classes into bargaining units? How about the movements that ultimately freed races, classes, and genders?

It’s these ideas that the digitization of the reference library archives will push into the world, a vast portion of which is still dealing with the issues that were being discussed way back when. The effects could be interesting.

I, therefore, applaud NYPL and Oxford University for doing what can be done within the limitations of the copyright system. We could certainly do worse than gain the ability to power search through the classic literature from past ages and drill down into some of the best library collections on Earth.

Despite all the hollering, the glass at this point still appears to be half full.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I need to get back to that Leo Tolstoy tome I’ve been meaning to finish.

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.’s vice president of content. His e-mail address is Send your comments about this editorial to

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