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A Landmark Undertaking

Google partnership makes library book scanning possible on “unthinkable” scale

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January 27, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The process of making digital copies of hundreds of thousands of Northwestern University Library books began in earnest late last year when library staff started pulling books off the shelves for the Google Books project.

In 2004, Google Books began to digitize and make accessible the information contained in the world’s books. Working with more than 40 public and university libraries, Google to date has scanned more than 15 million books from more than 100 countries and in more than 400 languages.

Google’s stated goal is to scan all known existing books -- a number it puts at nearly 130 million.

“The project will allow Northwestern to undertake digitization on a scale that would be impossible or unthinkable on our own,” said Scott Devine, who is co-leader of the library’s Google Project Management Team and University Library head of preservation.

Google, which has developed a proprietary high-speed scanning process, is supporting the project through its own digitization facilities.

“Prior to the Google project, libraries estimated their costs of digitization at more than $100 per volume,” said Devine. “So the value of the partnership just for Northwestern University Library alone can be measured in the millions of dollars.”

University Library provided Google with its library catalog records to allow Google to determine what materials Northwestern holds that have not yet been scanned from other libraries. While books from nearly all Northwestern libraries will be digitized, Google is particularly interested in volumes in the University’s world-famous Transportation Library and Herskovits Library of African Studies, as well as the Music Library.

Once a book is digitized, the online catalog will not only provide information on the print copy but will also provide a link to the digital copy. Books in the public domain will be accessible and highly searchable in digital form on a 24/7 basis from anywhere in the world. In-copyright materials will be indexed and a keyword search will display a few “snippets” of text when a keyword match occurs.

“This is a landmark undertaking for its potential benefit not only to Northwestern students and faculty but to the entire world,” said University Librarian Sarah Pritchard. “It’s a project that could not have been undertaken by any one library -- or even by Google alone. It truly is a worldwide partnership to preserve and transform scholarly and cultural heritage.”

The library is making efforts to ensure that materials required for classes will not be removed during the time those classes are taught. Nonetheless, University Library users may encounter a message in the online catalog that indicates a particular book is at Google for digitization and suggests it may be available through Interlibrary Loan. Library users also can place a hold on the item and will be notified when it has returned.

Devine expects a truckload of books from University Library will be shipped to Google each month for years to come.

The large-scale book project began in late 2004, when Google announced it was partnering with several high-profile universities and public libraries, including the New York Public Library, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and the libraries at Harvard, Michigan and Stanford universities.

Northwestern became a Google partner when the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) -- which includes all the libraries of the Big 10 and the University of Chicago -- signed an agreement to share its books in 2007.

Google will provide University Library with a digital copy of all Northwestern public domain materials that they scan. Those materials will go to the HathiTrust, a digital repository of the CIC and other university libraries and library consortia. The HathiTrust, which makes content accessible in the short term and ensures archival fidelity in the long term, currently holds more than 7.8 million digital volumes.

Topics: University