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Harvard University Library Notes / July 2006 / No. 1332
Sidney Verba: "Libraries, Books, Equality—and Google"
Equality, especially equality of opportunity, is a dominant value in the United States. And higher education is one of the great engines of that equality. Folks move up the economic ladder and the social ladder through higher education. They also move up another ladder—an intellectual ladder. That is certainly what we who teach in colleges hope: that our students will become more knowledgeable and wiser—better educated—by rich exposure to the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
Not all colleges are equal. They vary in prestige, which is an overrated value. But they also vary in the resources they can make available for a student's education. This makes higher education also an engine of inequality. Seniors in high school are not all equal at the starting line for the race to college. Some have been to better high schools. Some cannot muster the financial resources to attend the "better" colleges, even in an age of widespread financial aid.
The prestige ratings of colleges are not necessarily indicators of quality. Many schools lower on the list give as good, often better, education than those above. But the difference among schools in terms of educational resources can be quite large. I teach at a resource-rich college, Harvard. One of its greatest resources is its library—millions of books, collected over hundreds of years, and all available to its students, teachers, and researchers. My students can read widely and can do research papers utilizing the riches of the Harvard collections. Fine teachers and smart students are available in many places, but collections such as Harvard's are available in only a limited number of great research collections.
Harvard and a few other large research libraries—the New York Public Library, and the university libraries at Stanford, Michigan, and Oxford—have entered into agreements with Google to make millions of books from our collections available to students, teachers, and researchers. Working with Harvard, Google will scan a substantial proportion of the University's books, which will then be accessible on the Internet. The full text will be searchable to find books one wants, the books will be readable online, and Google is committed to making it possible to print out a copy for use. Our rich collections will be available in all schools and colleges; indeed to anyone connected to the Internet.
I hasten to add that the millions of books the participating libraries hope to make fully available come from those works in our collections that are in the public domain. It would be a clear violation of copyright law to provide such full access to books in copyright. This is a serious limitation. But we have millions of public-domain books, and such books are the least likely to be found in smaller libraries.
It is Harvard's hope and it is Google's ambition eventually to scan all the books in our libraries, including those in copyright. The text of the books in copyright would not be fully readable. Rather, a reader would enter a few words or phrases into a search and see several "snippets"—some few lines of text containing those words—as a guide to whether that book is of interest. If the book seems interesting, then Google is committed to aiding the reader in finding it, if it is available in a local library, or in finding a bookseller where it can be bought.
We believe that such discovery will benefit publishers and authors. It would whet but not satisfy the appetite for the book. Many publishers and authors agree, but a number do not. The issue of whether such digitization of copyrighted books is legitimate under copyright law is currently in the courts.
When we digitize our public domain books and, even more so, if we go on to digitize our copyrighted books, we will have contributed to the equalization of scholarly resources. The educational divide will be reduced.
There is one more divide that will be diminished—that between the library and the Internet. Most parents of teenagers and most teachers know that many young people believe that all knowledge is on the Internet and available via search engines. Of course, that is false. Libraries contain a depth of knowledge in books well beyond the instant search results from our computers. The glory of the Harvard-Google Project is that young people who begin with an Internet search will be taken to the world of books and into the rich resources of great libraries.
Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard, teaches political science. He is the author of a number of books on issues of equality.