The Equal Opportunity Library

Google's mammoth book digitization project means access to knowledge for minorities and the underrepresented, scholars and activists said Wednesday.
July 30, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Google's ambitious book digitization project will democratize access to knowledge for members of minority and other underrepresented groups, said scholars and activists gathered at the Howard University School of Law on Wednesday.

Here at the historically black university, panel members applauded Google's plan to scan and index 10 million books for the Web. Among those who will benefit are African Americans and Latinos who attend inner-city schools and lack a quality education, said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

"This project is so incredible because it helps level the playing field at the fundamental intersections of rights, knowledge and advocacy," he said.

Throughout history, society has seen fundamental shifts in the way works are used and distributed, said Lateef Mtima, a law professor at Howard and director of the campus's Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice. Critics have called Google's project a dangerous corporatization of content, but Mtima said it merely represents the latest such shift: "The public has to have access to those works -- to read them, to build on them."

Google's plan to build an online library follows October's $125 million settlement of copyright challenges brought by authors and publishers. The search engine giant is pledging a free "preview" of all books in the collection and inexpensive ways to purchase electronic access to full books. Authors and publishers can either set the price or allow Google to do so, using an algorithm based on factors such as genre, popularity and length, said David Drummond, Google's senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer. For individual users, book prices are expected to range between $2 and $29, with a median price of $6 to $7, he said.

Colleges, universities and other organizations will gain access to the collection via subscriptions, the price of which will vary according to each institution's size. Those that have made books available for digitization will receive heavy discounts or pay nothing, while people at other institutions will be able to view a free "snapshot" of the content. In May, the University of Michigan announced that it will be the first institution to allow Google to scan and index its books. (Though Howard hosted Wednesday's panel, it has not entered into such an agreement.)

Google is also pledging to make material accessible to the visually impaired through screen enlargement and Braille display technologies. In this way, it will open doors to unprecedented volumes of knowledge, said Charles Brown, Esq., an attorney who has served as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. "There is an alarming lack of equal access to the written word that inevitably translates into inequality."

Rebecca Tushnet, a professor of intellectual property at Georgetown University, said she is concerned that many of the digitized books will lack essential images. The company will probably not have permission to display photographs or illustrations that are copyrighted by outside or unknown artists.

But Rhea Ballard-Thrower, director of the law library at Howard, said that over all, the pluses of Google's endeavor far outweigh its minuses. "The beauty of the book project is that we can still scan and digitize these books, make sure these books are protected and have access to them," she said, adding, "We should not feel a big threat from the book project."


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