Google book scanning pays off for scholars

January 21, 2008 7:27:45 PM PST
Mountain View-based Google started digitizing books three years ago with the help of five partners, most of them universities. Scholars and students say the monumental project is starting to pay off for them.

The nearly five million books in at UC's satellite library in Richmond contain valuable knowledge and history. However, scholars no longer have to search through 28 miles of shelves.

"This is huge. This is huge for scholarship and students," says Jo Guldi, a UC doctoral candidate.

Jo Guldi is talking about the ability to find books online. The University of California is one of 28 institutions in seven countries having their vast libraries scanned by Google Book Search.

"It preserves some of the experience of looking at the book. You can look through the pages. From the main search page, you can also download the book and have it for yourself on your own machine to do what you'd like with it," says Heather Christensen, UC Mass Digitization Project Manager.

History Ph.D. candidate, Jo Guldi, started working on her dissertation two years ago, just as Google Book Search was ramping up. Today, she can find rare books online that she had to travel to Harvard, Yale and London to find. She says it will help students and scholars to discover resources difficult to find.

"I think it has the opportunity to make for profound scholarship, absolutely. You can ask higher level conceptual questions, you can go deeper into the archives. You can get really slight, finessed kinds of information about cultural change over time that were really impossible to get to before this," says Guldi.

Some books are not available full-text due to copyright. In that case, Google Book Search can point you to the nearest libraries where they can be found.

The digitization project is also yielding a benefit in terms of preservation.

"In disaster prone California, that's certainly something we think about a lot. We know that many of our materials are ending their life span in terms of the paper they're printed on, so even the non-valuable or the more routine books will disintegrate eventually," says Laine Farley, California Digital Library Executive Director.

Google guards its scanning process, so we can't show it to you. Going through the entire UC library collection is scheduled to take six years.

"The research potential for this project will be fun to watch over the next several years as people discover books or pieces of material that were harder or impossible to discover before," says Jodi Healy, Google Book Search Manager.

The Google library project is, of course, focusing on the written word. However, UC librarians already see what's down the road, and that includes the preservation of unpublished works, such as university professors' lectures, blogs and Web sites.