An Alternative to Google

Coalition involving seeks university libraries looking for a different way to digitize collections.
June 22, 2007

When Google announced a major expansion of its Library Project this month, attracting widespread attention, Emory University announced a different approach to digitizing collections. Unlike the Google model, Emory was only digitizing works that are no longer under copyright, and was retaining control over sale of the works (through print on demand).

On Thursday, two companies working with Emory announced that they plan to take that model to many other colleges and universities -- as well as other large library collections. Initial clients -- beyond Emory -- include the University of Maine, the Toronto Public Library and the Cincinnati Public Library. The two companies involved are Kirtas Technologies, which works on digitizing books and other materials, and BookSurge, a unit of that focuses on print on demand.

Google is working with some of the largest university libraries in the world -- places like Harvard and Stanford and Princeton Universities -- to digitize millions and millions of books. This month's announcement -- focusing on 12 Midwestern research universities that make up the Committee on Institutional Cooperation and their special collections -- will eventually add 10 million of the libraries' most distinctive volumes.

In contrast, the new effort is being pushed as a more library-driven project. While Google has been promoting its ambitions to make sure every book is searchable online, the alternative project is based on the idea that different libraries will want to digitize different materials, and in significantly different scales.

Lotfi Belkhir, CEO of Kirtas, said that this process would work for libraries that wanted to digitize a single book or a million. The expectation is that libraries will pick particular collections that are old enough to be excluded from copyright (avoiding the controversy and lawsuits Google prompted by including copyrighted material), and that libraries will pick key holdings, not everything they have.

Emory, for example, plans to focus on Southern history and culture. The University of Maine will focus on Maine Town Reports, which date to the early 1800s; a 30-volume history of the Wabanaki tribe; and Maine's Agricultural Experiment Station reports.

While the new model is being marketed as a "challenge" to Google, the search engine giant was welcoming of the project. A spokeswoman for Google said that "we welcome all efforts to make it easier for users to search and discover books online," adding that because Google's deals are non-exclusive, "we encourage libraries to try out different models."

Mark Sandler, director of the Center for Library Initiatives of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, has been working with Google on the deal announced by the CIC this month, but he said he was also "very high on this model" that was announced Thursday.

While this model is "very different" from the Google project "in terms of the kind of functionality the systems provide, the scale of operations, and the motivation for undertaking the partnerships to begin with," it's a model that may work for some institutions, Sandler said. "I guess it will be easier to judge the impact and effectiveness of this approach after we see what kind of implementation or services Emory might build for making this content accessible online," he said.

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