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Google To Work With British Library To Digitise Books

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Google is to digitise a quarter of a million of the British Library’s historic and rare books for public view

Google is teaming up with the British Library to digitise 250,000 books, published between 1700 and 1870.

The British Library announced the deal that will involve scanning approximately 40 million pages. The out of copyright books will be available free of charge online via Google Books and the British Library website.

The British Library, located near St Pancras in London, acts as the national library of the United Kingdom, and is one of the world’s largest libraries, holding over 150 million items (books, manuscripts, newspapers, maps etc) from nearly every country in the world.

Rarely Seen Material

The Google deal will see the search engine giant digitise a huge range of printed books, pamphlets and periodicals dated 1700 to 1870.

During this period the world witnessed the Industrial and French Revolutions, the Battle of Trafalgar and the Crimean War. It also witnessed the arrival of rail travel and the end of slavery.

The British Library said that the digitised content will include material in a variety of major European languages, and will focus on books that are not yet freely available in digital form online.

The first works to be digitised will include feminist pamphlets about Queen Marie-Antoinette (1791), material on the invention of the first combustion engine-driven submarine (1858), and an account of a stuffed hippopotamus owned by the Prince of Orange (1775).

The idea is that both researchers and students, as well as other users will be able to view the historical publications from anywhere in the world. This will include the ability to copy, share and manipulate text for non-commercial purposes.

“In the nineteenth century it was an ambition of our predecessors to give everybody access to as much of the world’s information as possible, to ensure that knowledge was not restricted to those who could afford private libraries,” said Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library. “The way of doing it then was to buy books from the entire world and to make them available in Reading Rooms.”

Research Tool

“We are delighted to be partnering with Google on this project and through this partnership believe that we are building on this proud tradition of giving access to anyone, anywhere and at any time,” added Dame Lynne.

“This public domain material is an important part of the world’s heritage and we’re proud to be working with the British Library to open it up to millions of people in the UK and abroad,” said Peter Barron, Director of External Relations, Google.

“There is no doubt that the digitisation of this unique material will greatly benefit the research process,” said professor Colin Jones, president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. “Academics are increasingly using new technologies at their disposal to search for innovative ways of investigating historical material to enable us to probe new questions and find alternative patterns of investigation. Digitisation gives us the freedom to not only do this quickly and remotely, but also enhances the quality and depth of the original.”

Previous Partnerships

The British Library has teamed up with commercial organisations before.

Back in February 2010 it launched a web archive designed to preserve pages from UK web domains, in much the same way as the library preserves a physical archive of British Books and other publications. That system – which included the open source Hadoop software – was built by IBM.

And the British Library has also previously teamed up with Microsoft to develop an open source, online collaboration tool for researchers. And prior to that in 2005 it struck a similar digitising deal with Redmond in order to digitise 65,000 books from the 19th century.

Whilst many acknowledge the valuable work that libraries such as the British Library, perform, not everyone is so appreciative.

In April this year a 16-year old youth was found guilty of flooding Portsmouth’s Central Library after he bragged about it on Facebook.