Study explores the future of book digitization

As more libraries move their collections online, some faculty are concerned about their ability to find and read digitized texts.
As more libraries move their collections online, some faculty are concerned about their ability to find and read digitized texts.

Reluctant faculty members, challenges in scanning old texts with foreign characters, and conflicting ideas about whether information should be commodified or made free on the internet have been barriers to educators and librarians who advocate for book digitization, according to research conducted by digital media experts from Rice University and the University of Michigan.

The report, “The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship,” was released June 2 by the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit group that advocates for greater access to information. The research examines the “wistfulness” for the days of print libraries that has slowed the creation of digitized book collections, among other topics.

Many in higher education have argued for more comprehensive web-based libraries like Google’s much-publicized Book Search, which has come under scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department.

In February, Stanford University affirmed its support of the expansive online library in what a campus statement called a “milestone in Stanford’s commitment to the program and to the provision of public access to millions of its books.”

The university said it would be a “fully participating library” in the Google Book Search project, which seeks to make millions of books available as the internet giant battles publishers and other opponents who fear the web repository would have too much control over online book prices.

Stanford’s library is one of more than 20 worldwide that has signed on to Google Book Search.

Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources and former vice provost and university librarian at Rice University in Houston, said the gulf between those who want to make information profitable for businesses and universities, and those who advocate for digitized libraries available to the public, has complicated the creation of all-online libraries in recent years.

“Today’s digital commons … is often a contested zone where bounded and unbounded impulses compete: intellectual property laws, copyright, and the commodification of information can struggle with open access, file sharing, social networks, and a much more free-form, nonhierarchical, even chaotic participation in the creation and distribution of knowledge,” Henry writes in the report. “The unbounded features of the new digital knowledge commons have resulted in the reconceptualization of academic libraries and, by extension, of the modern university.”

The council’s research included the results of a search for usable digitized books by Melissa Baralt, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. In the summer of 2008, Baralt conducted online searches for 61 digitized copies of books about the history of language and linguistics published between 1533 and 2007.

Baralt found 72 percent of the books in digital form, but not all of them were of high quality, according to the research. Many of the books published before 1924 had “two or more unintelligible pages” or were unsearchable because of complications with English characters.

Most of the books published from 1972 to 2007 that Baralt found were digitized in some form, but only had “20-percent preview chunks” available to readers. And in some languages, such as Tibetan, Baralt couldn’t “enable her computer to generate Tibetan characters to attempt to conduct a search.”

The interest in digital books is apparent in recent sales numbers, according to the researchers: More than 3 million eReader devices were sold in 2009, although analysts said consumers might not buy an eReader if it’s more than $100.

“Many students and faculty are unwilling or unable to spend approximately $250 for a Kindle or Sony Reader Touch Edition or approximately $500 for a Kindle DX,” the report said, adding that if eReaders are ever required to access digital libraries, that will only increase the effects of the “digital divide” between those who can afford the devices and people who can’t.

Despite these challenges, the authors of the Council on Library and Information Resources report predicted that the digitized library movement, which they deemed “on the horizon,” would advance by 2020 with few exceptions.

“At present, many libraries are trying to comprehend the significance of networked information for their mission and experimenting with new models for providing resources and services,” the report said. “In 10 years or so, the environment may have changed so that libraries could depend primarily on digital collections, with the exception of archives, special collections, and a few print resources, such as artists’ books, that may have difficulty making the transition to digital formats.”

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