“Make sure to save that — someday, that will be worth something.” That’s what people always say, about everything from dime store kitsch to the latest shrink-wrapped toy. Should books — not only first edition vintage books, but any book — be added to that list? As Google Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders manage to digitize more and more books and periodicals, even libraries have begun to downsize and divest themselves of their book collections. Libraries are the institutional book collectors we always thought we could count on, the places that could be relied on to have rare books, out-of-print books and antique books. But now libraries are putting their oldest books — the ones that have entered the public domain — into digital format. A patron can then view, and search, a rare book online, instead of checking out a hardbound copy. Using this system, Stanford’s Engineering Library has decreased the size of its book collection by 85 percent, paring down from 80,000 books to a mere 10,000.
Are books becoming an endangered species? Will the book collection in your self storage unit someday be featured on Antiques Road Show? Most book collectors disagree — vehemently. To a book lover, books are worth something now, says Harold Becker, a book collector and bookseller who stores 20 units full of books in an Extra Space facility. A climate-controlled self storage facility is an ideal place to store books, especially rare and antique books, to prevent damage from humidity and temperature fluctuations, and to preserve valuable books for future generations. But, although Becker sells books, he does not collect books for their present or future value.
Speaking from his Miami home this evening, Becker explained, “You don’t necessarily collect books because of their value. Most people don’t even know the value of the books that they have….I got started collecting books and selling books because the libraries didn’t have the things I wanted to read.” He doubted that a digitized library on a computer could ever contain everything he wants to read either.
“I think books will still be around,” Becker emphasized firmly. “People reread books.”
The librarians at Stanford University, however, think otherwise. In 2004, Stanford became one of the first universities to give Google permission to digitize large swaths of its library’s book collections for the Google Books Library Project. The Google Books Library Project is a collaboration between Google and certain large libraries to digitize parts of the world’s books. The information about a book provided by Google can range from nothing more than the card catalogue information, to that plus many pages of the book itself. If the book is in the public domain, Google digitizes, and makes available via the Internet, the entire contents of the book.
One library at Stanford, the library of the School of Engineering, is actually cutting back on shelf space for physical books. The library used to hold 80,000 books, but now holds only 10,000. Librarians digitized the books that were used the most often, and got rid of books that had not been checked out in five years. Engineering students rely heavily on periodicals (which have become increasingly digitized over the last five years) anyway, because the field changes so rapidly that books quickly become dated.
Library chief Helen Josephine, of Stanford’s engineering library, says that students used to have to search through several volumes of books to find the formulas they needed. “With books being digitized and available through full text search capabilities, they can find that formula quite easily,” Josephine told NPR’s Morning Edition this morning. Librarian Holly Robertson, of the University of Virginia’s Preservation Department, agrees. “My goal is to get people what they need as quickly as possible,” she says on Google Books’ “User Stories” page. “If someone asks for an old book that’s being conserved, or in too poor a condition to be circulated, the first think I think is, ‘Is it on Google Books?’” Robertson continued, “In many cases, I’m able to send them a link to the book. Patrons are very happy to have the online Google book while they wait for the Library’s copy to be repaired.”
Stanford’s library director, Michael Keller, agreed, noting that it makes sense to digitize books that are frequently used. Keller told Morning Edition that he thought soon all books would be digitized.
“They write their papers online, and they read articles online, and many, many, many of them read chapters and books online,” he told Morning Edition. “I can see in this population of students behaviors that clearly indicate where this is all going.”
Collectors like Becker wonder, if all the world’s books were to be digitized, what would happen to the hard copies of all those books. “There must be more than a billion books in the world,” Becker speculates. “What’s going to happen to them? Unless we burn them for fuel.”
Moreover, Becker points out, there are other problems inherent in buying and reading books on a computer or an electronic device. You do not really know what you are getting if you cannot pick up the book and thumb through it. “It’s a blind item when you’re buying a book on the computer,” Becker says.
Becker is in good company with his views. Author J.D. Salinger, for example, has refused to allow his books to be digitized. And last December, the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, warned Google that he would not allow the literary heritage of France to become a moneymaker for a large American corporation. “We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is,” Sarkozy said in a French roundtable discussion (quoted in Time) on the subject on Dec. 8. “We are not going to be stripped of what generations and generations have produced in the French language, just because we weren’t capable of funding our own digitization project.” German chancellor Angela Merkel has also rejected Google’s project, commenting in Time, “We refuse to permit simple scanning of books without full protection of intellectual-property rights.”
So far, Google has digitized about 10 million books, mostly books that are in the public domain or that have unknown copyright holders. The corporation argues that it is making rare books widely available, free, to members of the public, such as students, scholars, and researchers, who would otherwise not have access to them.
But Google may run afoul of American copyright laws in the course of its project. It is already being sued in France, for $15 million, by a publishing group that discovered that Google had scanned and archived books to which the publisher still held the copyright.
Digitizing books has other drawbacks, as well, in addition to the possibility of being sued. Earlier this month, researchers who specialize in the usability of new technological devices released a study showing that it takes longer to read an e-book on an iPad or Kindle than it does to read the same book on paper. Readers took 6.2 percent longer to read books on the iPad and 10.7 percent longer to read them on the Kindle.
Not all universities have embraced the digitization trend as thoroughly as Stanford has. Cornell’s Engineering Library hopes to digitize most of its collection as well, but it is meeting some resistance. Arizona State University is being sued for using the Amazon Kindle to distribute electronic textbooks, because the Kindle is not accessible to the vision-impaired. Princeton University, though, recently managed to put an entire coursework of readings into Kindle format.
Becker, Harold. Interview. July 12, 2010.