Google Books and The British Library

Hey, this is some neat news. Google Books and the British Library today announced a partnership to digitize 250,000 out-of-copyright books, pamphlets, and various other periodicals (spanning some 40 million pages) from 1700–1870. The Wall Street Journal (“Google to Make British Library Archive Available Online”) has some of the best coverage on this, along with insights into the backstory that went into the making of this Google/British Library collaboration.

And for those that have been following Google Books closely, the word “copyright” readily comes to mind anytime Google Books makes the news. The WSJ has some rather interesting comments from Simon Bell at the British Library on the copyright question:

“Nevertheless, Mr Bell expressed slight frustration that the project will not go beyond 1870: ‘What we really want is the 20th century, but we Europeans are often locked out of our own culture by copyright laws. So, for instance, the First World War poets, which are pre-1923 and therefore out of copyright in the USA, are still in copyright in Europe. There is an absurdity there. … The 1870 date we’ve chosen is very conservative and none of the European libraries has released anything that is still in copyright’”. Hmm.

Out of personal curiosity, I also perused several UK periodicals. Reactions are mixed (example, The Register: “British Library hands 200 years of history to Google”).* The Telegraph has a thoughtful response assessing the benefits for both Google and for the British Library (“Google and the British Library seek relevance together”), opining that such digital initiatives “represent a forward-looking attitude towards fulfilling the Library’s obligation to preserve and make available the written word in all its forms.”

The BL materials to be digitized and made freely available to the public are an eclectic mix of history, politics, and culture — ranging from feminist pamphlets about Marie-Antoinette, to natural history treatises, such as those involving this hippo.

You can find a link to the official statement from the British Library, which has a sample of some of the digitized items in question, here.

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* In that same article from The Register, I did learn about some older news of interest — that the British Library and Microsoft joined forces back in 2007 to digitize a couple of Leonardo da Vinci notebooks (The Register: “Vista and British Library put da Vinci online”).

You can check out the virtual da Vinci notebooks here (added bonus, this alternate link I found doesn’t require the crappy Shockwave plug-in, yay!).

The British Library’s Virtual Books collection is really, really good. Worth a visit, which you can find here.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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