Digital public libraries – filling the space left by Google Books

A couple of years ago, struggling to keep up with university assessment deadlines, I discovered Google Books. I discovered Google Books because the one copy of the book that I, and 150 other students studying nationalism in Europe, needed to finish our essays by the end of the week had been borrowed by one of those mystically organised students months earlier before the beginning of the course. I discovered Google Books, when, turning in desperation to the National Library’s holdings, I found that the copies of the book held at the NLA were already reserved. However, right underneath where I was told that a physical copy of the book was ‘not available’, there was another word highlighted in blue; ‘online’. Curious and more than a little desperate, I followed the link, which took me to the Google Books page for this book, and there were the contents set out. I thought I had hit the jackpot and started furiously reading and taking notes, until I realised I had not the entire book, but about 20 pages. ‘Fair enough’, thought I, ‘they can’t just put everybody’s books up there for free. Now, where do I find where my university library’s digital subscription the book, or the National Library’s? Or where can I pay to borrow or buy the digital copy so I can finish my essay?’

My faith in the internet’s capacity to provide all knowledge was, although not wholly unfounded, somewhat premature. At the time I was gleaning what information I could from ‘snippets’ of the books uploaded on Google Books, little did I know that Google was in the middle of settlement negotiations with publishers and authors in the US to bring to an end an action for copyright infringement that the authors and publishers had launched all the way back in 2005. Since 2002, Google has been scanning books with the aim of creating a digital library comprising of all the worlds books, and in 2004 the company announced that it was collaborating with some of the world’s major research libraries to digitise and make available their vast collections. While the settlement negotiations with the Author’s Guild and AAP resulted in wide-ranging agreement (which received vast amounts of commentary on its potential to change to face of copyright law), the agreement was struck down in April last year. As of last week, Google and the Author’s Guild are back in the courts, mostly fighting out procedural issues for the foreseeable future.

It is disappointing that the Google Books project seems to have stalled for now. I was fascinated by what I thought was a truly innovative and forward thinking initiative. The problems with the settlement, such as a corporation (rather than a public body) having a potential monopoly on digital copies of ALL OF THE BOOKS IN THE WORLD, even if that corporation is Google, were, however, serious. A universal digital library is certainly a goal worth pursuing. It is arguable, however, that it should ultimately be a public and international project, enabling cooperation between countries with well-resourced libraries and technological infrastructure to effect the sharing this information with less developed countries. Such a project would be a huge step towards levelling out the discrepancies in access to knowledge that exist between the developed and the developing world.

And this is why, in Australia, we should be excited by digital library developments that are happening on the other side of the globe, and why we should be following them closely, because, even if the grand plans of Google Book Search may have stalled, there are other initiatives taking up the challenge. Of particular note is the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the brainchild of Harvard Library director Robert Darnton, which has announced that it wants to have a digital library in operation, if only in rudimentary form, by April next year. There are still many uncertainties about exactly what the DPLA will comprise of and will look like, but whatever is unveiled next year has to be a step in the right direction, even if a ‘library of utopia’ is some way off.

Copyright, unfortunately, is a major hurdle to fully realising a comprehensive digital library, particularly in the form of the orphan works problem. Orphan works are in-copyright works, whose copyright holders cannot be identified or located. Due to extensions in copyright duration (from an initial 28 years starting at the date of publication in 1900 to the life of the author plus 70 years in 1976), and the ban on formalities prescribed by the Berne Convention, there is a significant amount of material that is unable to be used even if the copyright owners have no interest in exploiting it, because they are unable to be contacted to give permission for its use.  The British Library has estimated that up to 40% of its collection may be orphaned.

DPLA have said that, for now, they will not be including orphan works in their collection, but presumably will join the US Copyright office and others in encouraging Congress to move ahead with enacting orphan works legislation to enable them to use these works in the future. Because so much of copyright law is governed by international agreements, libraries and other potential users of orphan works in Australia face the same difficulties as their overseas counterparts. For Australian libraries and other institutions contemplating engagement in a universal digital library, or international network of digital libraries, it will be imperative for there to be changes to the current copyright law to enable the free use of orphan works for socially beneficial purposes, such as promoting access to knowledge and education.

In the words of Peter Brantley, director of technology for the California Digital Library, (as quoted by philosopher Peter Singer); "We have a moral imperative to reach out to our library shelves, grab the material that is orphaned, and set it on top of scanners.” A workable solution to the orphan works problem will be a major step towards enabling us to engage in a truly universal library. 

Add new comment

© 2016 - Australian Digital Alliance

Website by Oxide Interactive Canberra web design and usability