I hadn’t previously come across any of Google’s library partners, so it was great to listen to the experiences of Manuela Palafox from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, Spain at the Eurolis seminar Doom or bloom: reinventing the library in the digital age. Complutense originally signed its digitisation agreement with Google back in 2006, and was the first non-Anglo-Saxon (her words) library to join the programme.
Based on books in the public domain, the agreement enables Complutense to offer universal free of charge full-text access to a large number of books. So I, for example, a former student from a Spanish university, can now explore a rich vein of Cervantes books without having to endure the punishing euro-sterling exchange rate.
In digitising Complutense’s public domain books, Google assumed all the costs of digitisation and transportation. Google also created an interface, something they do for all their library partners. In return, Complutense selected and provided the books, as well as technical staff. The overarching aim was to offer access to the university’s library heritage. It was also perceived as an important part of selling the Spanish language abroad – providing access to the vast number of Spanish speakers in the world.
The process started with an analysis of the collection to determine how many books were out of copyright. They then catalogued 70,000 books and established selection criteria – publication year and physical condition – and formulated workflows and logistics for digitisation. Using PDAs, for example, the selection team stored details of the physical condition of books against the book barcode.
As a result of this herculean effort, thousands of Complutense’s digitised books are already accessible in Google Books. It’s possible to navigate directly to the full text from the catalogue record. There are also links enabling users to buy the book. This is truly how to extract optimal value from materials that were formerly languishing in the library. And even in the short time that they’ve been available, 34% of the materials have already been used.
Meanwhile, Jason Hanley, one of Google’s partner managers who spoke immediately after Manuela, seemed anxious to dispel a number of myths about Google and its work with libraries. On the predominance of English language materials, he pointed out that of all Google’s library partners, 8 are outside the US – 2 being in Japan and the rest, such as Universidad Complutense, in Europe. He also believed the predominance of language, linguistics and literature over STEM subjects to be surprising – I’m not sure why.
The question and answer session at the end, involving both Manuela Palafox and Jason Hanley, may have inadvertently answered the question of Google’s motives in this. It’s not the library world that should be afraid of Google – it’s the competing search engines. Google’s longstanding mission – to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful – has clear benefits not only to library partners such as Universidad Complutense, but to the library world as a whole, and to bibliophiles like me. But Google will be imposing limits on the availability of digitised materials for indexing by other search engines for a certain (undefined in this session) period of time, although Hanley denied that Google was trying to be exclusive (which came across as being more than slightly defensive).
The session was a clear window into the aims and experiences of a library partner, and maybe into Google’s motives as well… As one speaker from the floor noted, what are the chances of any other search engine being able to compete fully with Google in the foreseeable future?.