A surprising history of Google’s efforts to scan millions of books from the library

Nearly 20 years ago, Google launched an ambitious game to digitize the content of some of the world’s largest research libraries.

This seemed to be the beginning of a new era in which scholars and the public could make new connections and discoveries in the kind of mass digital library that was previously the subject of science fiction. But it soon became clear that the actual plan would turn out to be much more controversial than its organizers had ever imagined.

This week’s EdSurge podcast tells the story of this ambitious book scanning effort that sparked an epic legal battle between publishers, authors and technology. Somehow it’s a story that seems to be largely forgotten.

To this end, we have teamed up with Roger C. Schonfeld, co-author of the new book “Along Came Google: A History of Library Digitalization.” Schonfeld is a longtime leader in the library community and is the program director of Ithaca S + R, a non-profit educational consulting company.

We left with the question of why people don’t talk more about this piece of recent edtech history, and what lessons can still be learned.

EdSurge: Not so long ago, it was quite rare to have full text books scanned and available, right?

Roger C. Schonfeld: Not so long ago, you know, 15 years ago it was actually quite unusual. So the way people discovered books was really different. You were browsing the ticket catalog, or you went to a bookstore, or you were going through piles. It was a very, very different experience.

So remind us what Google did around 2004.

There have been a number of efforts to digitize library materials. And that’s something that’s really important to keep in mind. Our story isn’t just there, it was zero and then there was Google. Our story is that there was actually a lot of activity going on. The Internet archive was active. Carnegie Mellon University was active. Many, many individual libraries and library collaborations have been active in digitization.

But the effort was detached. They haven’t shrunk. They often avoided risk and feared digitizing copyrighted material that was still protected by copyright. There were all sorts of restrictions – so that nothing would detract from the great work that had been done.

And then came Google. And in fact, this dream that librarians, technologists, and others have had for decades — expanding access to knowledge and expanding access to book collections — has found the catalyst that was necessary to make it happen on such a scale. , necessary to eventually achieve a vision.

And the catalyst had several elements in it. Some people really focus on, ‘Well, God, Google had unlimited money, you know, relatively speaking.’ In reality, however, the amount of money Google invested was the amount of money that some foundations might be willing to invest – one that 50 or a hundred universities could easily invest together. So it wasn’t really the amount of money they brought in.

They also brought some technology, suggested some new ways to scan books faster and more efficiently. But I would say that the thing that Google bought was actually a kind of catalytic role that said, ‘It will happen and this will happen quickly, and we will work with anyone who is willing to do it with us. ‘

And instead of trying to do something in some consensus-driven collaboration across dozens or hundreds of large university libraries, they said, “We’ll find five who are willing to work with us, and we’ll use secrecy and other approaches to get those five to they were moving at the speed we want to move on ”- if I may call it that — on a particular Silicon Valley timeline rather than a more traditional academic timeline.

Listen to the whole interview at This Week’s EdSurge Podcast.


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