19 Oct Google to place Wisconsin history online
Madison, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s partnership with Google to digitize hundreds of thousands of volumes in campus libraries could make one of the best historical collections in the nation available to Internet users.
In the forthcoming months, the popular search engine company, in collaboration with the university and the Wisconsin Historical Society, will make books and rare documents currently available only on shelves and in archives freely accessible through Google Book Search.
“We’ve been in business for more than a century and a half in order to connect people with their heritage,” said Michael Edmonds, deputy director of the WHS and head of the library archives, digital collections, and Web services division.
“The Web is the most powerful tool we’ve ever employed in pursuit of that mission. Joining with Google and the University of Wisconsin to help achieve it excites all of us here at the Historical Society very much.”
The arrangement involves no exchange of money and places Madison among seven prestigious libraries already engaged in the project, including Harvard, Michigan, New York Public Library, Oxford, Stanford, the University of California system, and, most recently, Madrid’s Complutense University, the largest university library in Spain. The Library of Congress is also conducting a pilot project with Google.
Wisconsin will avoid copyright uncertainty
Although Google argues that it has established a system to abide by copyright protections for all scanned books, the Association of American Publishers filed a lawsuit against the company arguing that third parties cannot make complete copies of copyrighted books.
UW-Madison will cleanly sidestep all legal entanglements in the initial stages of its involvement, according to university sources, because no copyrighted material will be scanned into Google’s database.
The entire library system contains 7.2 million volumes, of which WHS has approximately 4 million, dating from 1570 to the present. Edmonds estimates that more than half of that total is in the public domain because it was produced before 1923 or because it was created by the U.S. government.
“We’re not going to put into any boxes to be scanned anything except documents that are in the public domain already. So there’s really no legal issue here for us,” Edmonds said.
Discussions to date have centered on the historical society’s collections of federal and state government documents as the top priority.
“All of this copyright-free material will not necessarily be included, of course, but we intend to be scrupulous about excluding any publications for which the rights are unclear,” Edmonds said.
Making it happen
Logistical details for processing the books have not yet been finalized, but all three organizations are prepared to allocate resources sufficient to see it through, Edmonds said.
“There is no end time estimated,” he said. “We expect to start as soon as we can get the infrastructure in place. The work of inventory control – making sure that everything that goes out also comes back – will involve a huge amount of clerical work as well as packing the boxes and shipping them.”
In addition to public documents, the UW-Madison libraries will target other high-use collections, such as the history of medicine, patents and discoveries, American and Wisconsin history, genealogical materials, decorative arts, maps, and sheet music.
“Whenever possible, the university intends to make the complete content of public documents available on the Internet, including text, images, and maps,” Edward Van Gemert, interim director of the UW-Madison General Library System, said in a statement.
Although WHS houses documents as old as the colonial era, archive staff have little doubt that all documents and pamphlets will return safely from processing.
Google says it uses carefully engineered, non-destructive scanning techniques. For some applications, the project likely will utilize high-speed overhead scanners capable of automatically turning pages, Edmonds said. Scanning is expected to take place in Madison, Ann Arbor, Mich, or both.
“We haven’t always had the resources to digitize things as fast as we’ve wanted,” Edmonds said, “and Google, with this project, is going to digitize miles of shelving and put it out to the largest audience you could imagine.”
Delicate items will be handled with special care, he added, but frequently the age of a document does not directly determine its vulnerability to disintegration.
Paper printed before the Civil War is almost always of much better quality and less fragile than paper printed between 1870 and 1920 because the manufacture of paper from bleached wood pulp was still emergent during those decades, Edmonds explained.
“Books printed in the 1600s are beautiful and flawless and you can handle them just as you would a modern book. There were just a few decades when the paper was really terrible and the books are very fragile,” Edmonds said.
“Although there are some delicate items,” he added, “we don’t anticipate any great preservation challenge here.”
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