Access principle on Google’s terms

The British Library has reached a deal with search engine Google to have thousands of pages from one of the world’s biggest collections of historic books, pamphlets and periodicals scanned and made available on the internet.  The project involves about 250,000 rare texts dating back to the 18th Century.

It will take a few years to complete the project and Google will cover the cost of digitization. After the project is completed, it will allow readers to view, search and copy the out-of-copyright works at no charge on both the library and Google books websites.

I find it interesting that the library chief executive, Dame Lynne Brindley, justifies the project on the basis of the core library principles saying that the scheme is an extension of the ambition of the library’s predecessors in the 19th Century to provide access to knowledge to everyone: “The way of doing it then was to buy books from the entire world and to make them available in reading rooms […] We believe that we are building on this proud tradition of giving access to anyone, anywhere and at any time. […] Our aim is to provide perpetual access to this historical material, and we hope that our collections coupled with Google’s know-how will enable us to achieve this aim.”  Google’s Director of external relations, Peter Barron, agrees: “What’s powerful about the technology available to us today isn’t just its ability to preserve history and culture for posterity, but also its ability to bring it to life in new ways.” (quoted from:

I am thinking what benefit it is for the British Library to have its out of print collection scanned and available from their website if it’s going to be available through Google anyway. Then I am thinking for how long access from Google will be free… Will it be free only as long as people remember that certain out of print texts are also available from the British Library website while other texts are available from other libraries’ websites? And for how long will people actually bother accessing individual libraries’ websites if everything will be available from Google, and for how long will it be economically feasible to even maintain these websites. What will be the use of the British Library and other libraries in time when out of print texts will be accessed online through Google and electronic versions of new books will be downloaded to individual readers?

And I think about the access principle that is apparently the guiding principle behind this digitization project… In the end, it will be the few in Google and such that will hold the key to human knowledge and culture and they will provide access on their terms. There is already an unfortunate precedent for this project at the British Library. They have had already digitised a large part of their newspaper collection in partnership with JISC, and few years later made it available behind a paywall: If they have closed access to their digitised newspapers, what assurance there is that they will not do the same with this new project?


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