Harvard’s Alternative to Google Books

Universities launch a digital public library

2 min read
Illustration by L-Dopa
Illustration by L-Dopa

In 2004, Google decided to seek out millions of books gathering dust in library stacks, digitize them, and make them available to you at the click of a mouse. All you had to do was notice the advertisements in the margins.

But after Google extended its archiving effort from books in the public domain to those under copyright, the U.S.-based Authors Guild filed a class action lawsuit in 2005. Then, while negotiating a settlement, Google decided to sell not merely ads but the books themselves, with or without the specific consent of copyright holders, on the ground that the guild could stand in as their legal representative.

Not so fast, said federal judge Denny Chin, as he rejected one Guild-Google settlement after another. And as the case went forward, it raised a question in the minds of librarians, writers, and archivists: Should we really put the entire repository of human knowledge in the hands of one company?

In 2010, university librarians met in a national conference and decided to create an alternative called the Digital Public Library of America. Operating under the auspices of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, it would archive every book in the public domain and offer them online to anyone. The library’s prototype is expected to launch this year.

“This is a civic-minded engagement,” says Kenny Whitebloom, who manages the library project. “There was a fear that Google Books was a commercial project, and this was an opportunity to create a digital library on its own terms.”

The Digital Public Library has a lot of things going for it. It won’t try to sell you ads when you read books online, and it won’t try to sell books it doesn’t have the right to. What it doesn’t have is money—or at any rate not enough of it to scan and organize every book in the United States. (The rest of the world is a matter the organization will have to leave for another day.)

Instead, the Digital Public Library will serve as the archive for other archives. All around the country, from the Library of Congress to the Internet Archive in Northern California, libraries have been scanning books and setting up individual databases for their collections. The Digital Public Library of America hopes to produce a search engine that will coordinate with these institutions, creating a single search portal that will direct users to every single book they need, in any collection.

Whitebloom expects to finalize the legal deals with the various partners in the coming year. But if he gets the project going, he just might be able to offer what Google won’t: words without ads. “It’s free and open to all,” he says, “a sustainable national resource that will not be beholden to commercial influences.”

This article originally appeared in print as "Read Free or Die."

About the Author

Chris Thompson, a freelancer, used to write Slate’s Feeling Lucky blog, which covered Google. In 2009 he noted that Google’s bosses’ efforts to digitize the world’s books had created “intellectual property problems that no one thought they ever would have to address.” In “Read Free or Die,” he describes a new nonprofit attempt led by Harvard University to solve those problems.

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