Google print outshines the European Digital Library

Article published on Oct. 4, 2006
Article published on Oct. 4, 2006
As Google actively courts European publishers at Frankfurt, the nascent European Digital Library fumbles to catch up

TIMELINE/ The long road to the European Digital Library

In December 2004, Google caught the world by surprise and revealed Google Print, their new project to digitize 15 million books from 5 prestigious English language libraries, over a 6-year period. Since then, Internet users have been able to access the entire contents of public domain books (published since 1922, according to US law). However, the American giant’s ambition does not end here. It is attending the Frankfurt Book Fair to convince European publishing houses to digitize and include their most recent publications in Google. Thus, when an Internet user types in the keywords of a recent work, Google will provide a 5-page sample and a link to the main libraries, bookshops and online sales portals where the book can be found. Publishing houses love the idea, since they can keep the rights on the books and get a great deal of free publicity on the web.

France leads the assault

On the other side of the pond, the first person to raise a hue and cry was the President of the French National Library (BNF), Jean-Noël Jeanneney. He warned European cultural institutions of the damage that could be caused by Google’s hegemony in the so-called “knowledge digitization” market. At the time, the majority of the works of the Google Library were in English.

Nevertheless, the American company is striving to conquer the European market. Madrid’s Complutense University has just signed a contract with Google to digitize 300,000 volumes from its library, at a rate of up to 3000 a day, over a 6 year period. The second-biggest Spanish university library is looking to include the classics of Spanish and Latin American literature, such as Miguel de Cervantes, Quevedo or Garcilaso de la Vega. However, it is also examining works no longer under copyright, including those published in French, German, Latin, Italian and English. After Oxford, Complutense will become the second European university to open its library doors to the king of digitization.

“What Google is doing is illegal,” says the head of the Federation of European Publishers (FEE), Anne Bergman-Tahon. “Not only have they scanned hundreds of protected works belonging to the French group, La Martinière, from the University of Michigan Library, but it is a flagrant violation of European law to own a digital copy of a work for commercial use before 70 years have passed since the death of it’s author.” The case is currently being examined by French courts.

Europe counterattacks

Since 2004, the sluggish European machinery is moving to compete with Google thanks to the European Digital Library. This project will offer “a shared multilingual access point that allows online exploration of a wide cultural heritage,” that is today scattered throughout the archives of different bodies across Europe. The national libraries of several countries have started to digitize their holdings. The BNF is leading the pack: 90,000 books and more than 80,000 images are already available on its Gallica digital site.

In 2008, the European Library (TEL) portal should offer a multilingual access to a minimum of two million electronic books from the collections of the 19 European national libraries. According to EU predictions, by 2010, the European Digital Library will contain works from archives, museums and other libraries, including recent and copyright-protected works.

European publishers are aware that e-books are the future. “However, we don’t want virtual borrowing to replace paperbacks. Libraries cannot stock an unlimited number of copies and this is causing bookshops and publishers to disappear,” says Anne Bergman-Tahon. European publishers are working hand in hand with the Commission so that the new library can offer a payment service to gain access to digital copies of protected works, not simply an extract, as Google Books is currently proposing. “For this reason, we have to limit the number of copies available to web users. When there are no copies left on the virtual bookshelves, they will have to either reserve a copy and wait, or go to the bookshop and buy an e-book,” says the FEE head.

Step on the accelerator

Nevertheless, the European Digital Library is still a work in progress. The European Commission, in an August 2006 recommendation to member states, pointed out that it was necessary to increase efforts on a national level to overcome the obstacles to the creation of the library.

In 2010, the European Digital Library should have 6 million e-books available, a much lower figure than that given by Google for the same year: 15 million. The Frankfurt Book Fair will not speed up the process, but given that this year’s event is emphasizing digitization, it is a good opportunity to remind Europe that it is a couple of years behind Google. There are also other initiatives other than Google, such as Microsoft and Yahoo’s Open Content Alliance, or Project Gutenberg, which already has 19,000 digitized books available on the web.