A Future for Fragile Books

My last post, on Google adding maps to its Google Books pages, generated some interesting discussion about digitizing books in the comments. I can think of many reasons why digitizing books is a good thing, while the motivations of the publishing houses and the Authors Guild in suing Google seem confused at best and craven at worst.

One of the reasons why digitizing books is important is that it preserves the knowledge contained between the covers. Our libraries are filled with fragile books that require tremendous upkeep and are not as useful to students, scholars, and readers as they could be. This rationale is behind a new $2 million digitizing program at the Library of Congress that will focus on “brittle books.” Among the books slated to be digitized are “American history volumes, U.S. genealogy and regimental histories that hold personal collections from the Civil War period, and six collections of rare books including the Benjamin Franklin Collection.”

Some may argue that this is apples and oranges, that publishers and Authors Guild are only interested protecting writers working now, but the lawsuits have in fact targeted the Google Books Library Project, not the Google Books Partner Program, which they are largely on board with. Those attacking Google charge that the company is running afoul of copyright law by scanning library books in their entirety even if Google only makes snippets of them available to the public, and, as Jeffrey Toobin’s insightful article in the New Yorker makes clear, these suits threaten to cause a ripple effect that might not be in the public’s best interest. Whatever the outcome of these suits, let’s at least hope that our most fragile books get saved for posterity.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I can see how authors would dislike having their books scanned and placed on the web. But I wonder if those of us who buy books will be buying them any less having peeked inside them? I often go on Amazon and use their "search inside" feature before buying a book. It's like standing in the bookstore and thumbing through a book before buying it. I have never read an entire online book. I want to hold the book in my hands, smell the paper, study the cover. My hope is making books more accessible will encourage more people to read? Maybe not, but Max is right, our older books will be saved and shared if nothing else.

  2. Enjoyed reading your post.

    Google is not the only player in establishing a digital library. For everyone’s info, we at Bookyards ( http://www.bookyards.com ) have compiled a good collection of free digital libraries with books available for downloading for free. Just go to Bookyards “Library Collections – E Books” at http://www.bookyards.com/links.html?type=links&category_id=1780
    There are approximately 550 digital libraries separated alphabetically and by category, with over 500,000 unique ebooks

    Bookyards is a free online library located at http://www.bookyards.com

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