[A2k] Google to Make British Library Archive Available Online by N. Kendall

Manon Ress manon.ress at keionline.org
Tue Jun 21 13:46:53 PDT 2011

“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.”end of quote


Google to Make British Library Archive Available Online

By Nigel Kendall

The British Library today announced its first partnership with Google,
under which Google will digitize 250,000 items from the library’s vast
collection of work produced between 1700-1870.

The Library, the only British institution that automatically receives
a copy of every book and periodical to go on sale in the United
Kingdom and Ireland, joins around 40 libraries worldwide in allowing
Google to digitize part of its collection and make it freely available
and searchable online, at books.google.co.uk and the British Library
website, www.bl.uk.

Speaking at the official launch, Kristian Jensen, the Library’s head
of Arts and Humanities, said: “This process allows books to fulfill
their original aim of being useful to as many people as possible.
Scholars will be able to identify what they are looking for in
seconds, rather than hours.”

The new collection will contain only works that are out of copyright
under European law. The collection will be selected according to
theme, and will go online over the next three years. Google will
undertake the digitization process at its own facility, whose location
a Google spokesman declined to reveal, for security reasons.

As well as published books, the 1700-1870 collection will also contain
pamphlets and periodicals from across Europe. This was a period of
political and technological turmoil, covering much of the Industrial
Revolution, the French Revolution, the introduction of UK income tax
and the invention of the telegraph and railway. All of these topics
are covered, as are the quirkier matters of the day, such as the
account, from 1775, of a stuffed hippopotamus owned by the Prince of

The precise length of the deal, and the cost to Google, were not
disclosed although it’s safe to assume that the British Library struck
a hard bargain over the contentious issue of digital rights. Just over
two years ago, rights issues caused the Library to pull out of
previous negotiations with Google.

In 2009, Simon Bell, the head of partnerships at the British Library,
said: “Ultimately the ownership should be fully taken back into the
British Library so that we can then offer it via our website to the
British taxpayer for free. We could not at the time achieve that with
Google.” The Library went on to form limited partnerships with
Microsoft and others.

In 2011, Mr. Bell seems happier with the new Google deal: “This is a
fixed contract that gives us huge freedom. It’s not a monstrously long
contract and then the digital rights revert to us. Google is also
happy for us to disseminate this material in any non-commercial way we
see fit, including via www.europeana.eu which hosts digitized content
from public sources all across Europe.

“The deal was timely, because other national libraries are starting
similar collaborations…it started with the Italians, then the
Austrians, then the Dutch, then the Czechs. So we are not the only

“We think it would have cost us about £6 million to scan these
documents, though I can’t say how much it’s costing Google. We like to
think that projects like this are for the common good; Google’s
motives may be less altruistic, but they’re not going to be making a
fortune out of this.”

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.”

Nor, he noted, was the issue of copyright restricted to Europe: “Early
adopters of digitization were American college libraries that got
themselves in a bit of trouble with copyright. The 1870 date we’ve
chosen is very conservative and none of the European libraries has
released anything that is still in copyright. The idea of the British
Library and things that are still in copyright is way too rich for our

There is still, hope, however. A recently published review of UK
Intellectual Property laws commissioned by the UK government and
delivered by professor Ian Hargreaves in May recommends the
establishment of separate digital rights for works that are
technically still in copyright, but unavailable. Perhaps one day UK
Internet users will be able to enjoy Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry
legally, without first having to travel to the United States to view

In the meantime, bibliophiles can play an intriguing game at
ngrams.googlelabs.com where the occurrence of key words in texts over
set historical periods can be viewed as a graph. Tip: try “heaven” and
“hell” from 1650-1800.

Manon Anne Ress
Knowledge Ecology International
1621 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20009 USA
manon.ress at keionline.org

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