Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Open Approach to Digitizing Libraries...

Several years ago Google made headlines for its plan to digitally scan millions of books from the nation's libraries, and then make those books searchable to the public. This blog has supported Google's efforts, but a new development is making The Nerfherder re-consider.

As this New York Times article explains, libraries are increasingly shunning Google because of their dissatisfaction with the restraints that Google subsequently puts on them. For example, "libraries that agree to work with Google must agree to a set of terms, which include making the material unavailable to other commercial search services."

In contrast, the Open Content Alliance, which many libraries are now favoring, makes the material available to any search service. Rather than granting Google exclusive search rights, the books remain publicly accessible by all-comers.

The Times is correct in asserting that this "resistance from some libraries, like the Boston Public Library and the Smithsonian Institution, suggests that many in the academic and nonprofit world are intent on pursuing a vision of the Web as a global repository of knowledge that is free of business interests or restrictions."

Make no mistake, public libraries are exactly that... public. The original reason for supporting the efforts of Google, Microsoft, and others to digitize library collections was to make that material even more accessible to the public. However, if the agreements that libraries must make with these private commercial firms leads to that material being less publicly accessible, then it has unquestionably become counter-productive.

An open approach remains the most desirable one, and the Open Content Initiative is working in the right direction. The public's access to public material should not be impeded, and the interests of commercial firms can still be served because their rights to innovate commercial applications based on that material remain intact. The playing field will simply be more level.


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