CURT NICKISCH: This fight is over free access to information.
M: This is the 1898 Palace for the People, as it was called at the time.
NICKISCH: Maura Marx is in charge of digital services at the Boston Public Library.
M: Now we're standing underneath the inscription over the central doorwa, which says "Free To All." Everything that is in this library is the property of the people of the city of Boston.
NICKISCH: Now Marx wants to make it free to the people of the world. Her library is teaming up with 18 others to digitize the books in their collections that are no longer under copyright. The ambitious project will take years and millions of dollars. But just across the Charles River, Harvard is taking a different tack. The university is teamed up with the commercial search engine Google. Associate library director Dale Flecker says the job was too big, even for his university with its $35 billion endowment.
M: I'm not sure we would had have the motivation to spend at the level that Google is willing to spend to do what they're doing. We don't know how much - they haven't said - but it is undoubtedly a lot of money.
NICKISCH: The money comes with a catch. When Google finishes scanning a volume for Harvard, the book goes back on the shelves and the university gets a data file - but no one else does. So there's only one place for the public to read Harvard's books online. Okay, so I'm at Yahoo.com and I'm typing in the title of a book written by the president of Harvard and the result - mostly just links to buy the book, no way to look inside, but if I go to Google, there it is.
M: For the next generation to interface with the library through a single corporate entity, that's a huge problem.
NICKISCH: That's Brewster Kahle; he heads the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that's working with 80 libraries across the country. It's giving them technical know-how to scan their books and make them available to every search engine, anyone, really. Kahle says the cost comes to about $30 per book.
M: Bringing this online is a tiny fraction of what it is we already spend for libraries, and we can multiply the access that we can offer just by this simple digitization process.
NICKISCH: In a dim room inside the Boston Public Library, Rebecca Philio is scanning a leather-bound tome from the personal collection of John Adams. She's being careful with the fragile paper, slowing her routine of lifting a glass cradle, turning a page, and then easing the glass back down for cameras to take a picture.
M: I think this is my favorite part of the job, it's sort of rhythmic as you can see is unlike--
NICKISCH: Paul Wynn is looking over Philio's shoulder. He works for the Internet Archive and supervises the dozen people here who digitize books from eight in the morning until midnight. Wynn says on average, each worker scans a pair of pages every four seconds.
M: When all is said and done, we're doing about a quarter-million pages every single week. We're actually up to about a thousand books.
NICKISCH: Then the data goes online, and anyone can have at it. This open approach, though, relies on a hodgepodge of groups and volunteers to make it accessible to the public. The process goes much faster for those libraries that work with a corporate partner.
M: Let me find another book here.
NICKISCH: Harvard librarian Dale Flecker is looking at one of his university's online volumes. Google's interface lists other books that reference the text. Journal articles, too. There's even a map with every place name mentioned in the book.
M: This is a rich set of information that will get richer and richer with time. If you've got the full text of lots of books and some smart software engineers, there's an awful lot of new things that you can do.
NICKISCH: Google is also taking Harvard further than most libraries feel comfortable going on their own by scanning books that are still under copyright. The head of Google's book search, Adam Smith, says his company is out to make a profit, but its business model is right in line with the mission of its partner libraries at Harvard, Stanford, the New York Public Library and others.
M: People are interested not just in searching Web pages but in searching all the world's information. And so this initiative plays directly into that, in really enhancing the quality of the overall search experience for Google users.
NICKISCHE: Smith says his company has no plans to charge for access to the books it scans, but that's the least of Brewster Kahle's concerns. The founder of the Internet Archive worries that a corporation beholden to advertisers could be compelled to block access to a controversial book, say, the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
M: Imagine having a single organization have to respond when somebody puts pressure on them to take a set of works off the shelves. And if it's only available from one organization, you'd never know it.
NICKISCHE: Google's Adam Smith calls those fears overblown. Besides, he says, his company's agreement with partner libraries is not exclusive. So, Smith says, if Harvard one day decides to make its books accessible to any search engine, there's nothing stopping it. Librarians can always go back to the shelves, empty them onto carts, and scan the books again on their own.
For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch, in Boston.
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