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.