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The field narrows for e-books

As Microsoft backs away from digitizing old texts, some worry that a single company could privatize world knowledge.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

Should a single company be left in charge of putting all of the world’s books online?

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An impressive list of world-class libraries and book publishers don’t seem to mind. In 2004, they signed on as partners with Google, the Internet search and advertising colossus based in Mountain View, Calif.

Yet some observers have strong concerns about Google Book Search and how the collected thinking of human history will be accessed in the future.
Those anxieties rose late last month when Microsoft announced that it was withdrawing from a rival book-scanning project headed by the nonprofit Internet Archive (

About 750,000 books and 80 million journal articles scanned by Microsoft were removed from its servers, but many remain accessible elsewhere, including on servers maintained by the Internet Archive, which has about 440,000 books online.

Microsoft, which said it still intends to give publishers digital copies of their scanned books, may have made a rational business decision from its perspective. But the sudden shift also showed how vulnerable a digitizing project is when it relies on a for-profit company, says Brewster Kahle, executive director of the Internet Archive. Nothing would stop Google from also suddenly shutting down its online book effort or limiting access to it, he says. If money gets tight, “there’s a meeting behind closed doors, and there’s a notice put on the website that it’s shut down,” he says. “That’s what happens.”

Internet access to books is becoming more important, some observers say, as portable book readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle, become more common and as more people expect to find all their reading needs online.

“I wouldn’t say Google is 100 percent of the digital book world, but it’s getting near 90 percent,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia, who writes a blog called “The Googlization of Everything.”

Internet Archive has funds to scan 1,000 books per day through the end of the year, Mr. Kahle says, including those at the Library of Congress. He’s exploring new partnerships that would allow the project to continue into 2009 and beyond.

“It’s not the end,” he says, but he concedes that now would be a great time for the next Andrew Carnegie – the 19th-century industrialist turned library-building philanthropist – to step forward and leave his or her own legacy by financing an open, nonprofit, worldwide digital library. “The best works of humankind are not on the Net yet,” he says.