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Google, Harvard Collaborate To Scan Library Books

By Kimberly A. Kicenuik, Crimson Staff Writer

This December, Harvard partnered with Google to make millions of the University’s books searchable online in an ambitious and controversial initiative to digitize five library collections.

The Google Print project will allow internet users to browse through uploaded works—in either their complete or excerpted form—free of charge. The University of Michigan, Stanford, the New York Public Library, and the Bodleian in Oxford have joined Harvard in this effort.

The project has garnered criticism from American publishers for copyright infringement and from European library officials for its emphasis on the English language and American culture.

Michigan and Stanford are in the process of digitizing their entire collections—totaling some 15 million books—while the Bodleian is offering around one million books published before 1900.

The Harvard and New York Public Library contributions are smaller still, but across all five libraries, the entire project is still expected to take up to 10 years, with cost estimates ranging from $150 million to $200 million.

According to Pforzheimer University Professor Sid Verba ’53, who is the director of the Harvard University Library (HUL), the partnership with Google marks an unprecedented step in making Harvard’s books accessible to the public.

There was a trial period from December to May in which Harvard provided Google with a random sampling of books which were then scanned on premises because Verba said he was concerned with keeping the collections available to the current Harvard community and avoiding book damage.

In the last six months, however, Google representatives have demonstrated their effective and sensitive scanning technology.

“It is very specifically designed to be non-destructive,” said Adam Smith, Google project manager. “In working with these libraries and their collections, we need to be extremely careful.”


In December, University President Lawrence H. Summers said he was excited the initiative would make Harvard’s collections easier to search and more widely accessible, and the head of Oxford University has said that the project may be as significant as the printing press. But not all shared this opinion.

Several publishing organizations have claimed that the project infringes on copyright law. According to Sally Morris, Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society publishers—an international association of over 300 publishers—this sort of digitization may be illegal.

“The law does not permit wholesale copying by a commercial organization of works that are still in copyright,” Morris wrote in an e-mail earlier this year. “It is also illegal to make those works available digitally once they have been copied.”

Morris explained that the current law calls for Google to get written permission from individual publishers.

A Google spokesperson addressed the potential for copyright infringement by underscoring the corporation’s commitment to working with individual publishers to carefully designate the copyrighted materials.

However, Jonathan Zittrain, faculty co-director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, expressed none of Morris’s concerns over possible copyright infringement.

“This is what fair use is designed for,” he wrote in an e-mail earlier this year. “By showing only snippets, the market for the books themselves is not harmed.”


But Google’s promises seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Europe, where libraries joined forces earlier this winter to resist the print project for a different reason.

The French have expressed concerns that the project will only foster America’s cultural imperialism, enhancing the dominance of the English language and Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking.

Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the French national library, has since inspired 19 libraries to join the cause. The national libraries in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden all signed and released an official oppositional statement soon after Google unveiled the project in December.

More than 20 national libraries out of the European Union’s 25 member states said that they wanted a European search engine.

HUL representatives insist that foreign literature is well-represented in Google’s digitization project.

“We are supportive of all digitization efforts because we believe everyone benefits when more information is available online,” said Susan Wojcicki, Google’s director of product development. Indeed, U.S. libraries in addition to Harvard, have already contributed a significant amount of material written in foreign languages.

In an April 29 editorial printed in the International Herald Tribune, Pierre Buhler, associate professor at the National Foundation of Political Science likewise criticized European attacks, particularly those of Jeanneney.

“What he called for was no less than the first culture war in cyberspace,” Buhler wrote.

—Staff writer Kimberly A. Kicenuik can be reached at

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