Ever dream of browsing library stacks via your laptop?
Well, boot up, bibliophile. That vision took a big step toward becoming reality this week, as Internet search-engine firm Google and five big libraries announced plans to create a giant online reading room.
Transferring volumes of print into scannable digital material is far from a new idea, of course. For years, libraries have scanned or typed some of their collections into computers. Efforts such as Project Gutenberg have created virtual shelves of e-books from items in the public domain.
But the new agreement marries some of the biggest research libraries in the world with a cutting-edge corporation. Experts say Google has two things most academic institutions lack: money and computer technology. Lots and lots of technology.
"Personally, I think this could be a really amazing partnership," says Matthew Gibson, head of the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia.
Under the deal announced late Monday, material from the New York Public Library and four major university libraries - Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Oxford - will be indexed on Google.
Not all these institutions are participating in the same manner. The New York Public Library is letting Google scan only material that is in the public domain - that is, whose copyright has expired. Harvard is submitting a relatively small sample of 40,000 books so it can see how Google's technology works. Only Michigan and Stanford have agreed to allow computerization of all their holdings.
Nor does this necessarily mean readers will be able to see "The DaVinci Code" for free. While public domain material will be available in its entirety, only snippets of books still under copyright will appear. And it will be years before the project is complete. At Michigan, for example, the library stacks contain about some 132 miles of books. Google hopes to get the digitization job at UM done in six years, according to John Wilkin, Michigan associate university librarian. "We feel this is part of the mission of a great public university - reaching out to the public with the resources that we have," he says.
Google has a self-interest in the project too, of course. These new library holdings could be a signature resource for a search firm facing increasing competition from rivals Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN.
Google executives declined to comment on exactly how they would go about transferring printed pages into the digital realm. But librarians say that the job surely won't be easy. Many institutions have been trying to do just that for years and have proceeded at the pace of a seventh grader plowing through Tolstoy's "War and Peace."
The University of Virginia, for instance, used foundation funding to digitize 800 volumes of early American fiction. It took them 10 years. "These are waters that libraries have been trying to navigate for years," says Mr. Gibson of Virginia.
The most readily available computerized content may be somewhat specialized, at least for a few years. Publishers are themselves struggling to establish their own Internet presences. A true virtual library, in which all volumes and magazines and pamphlets can be viewed free, won't happen for some time, if at all.
In the future, readers may be able to check out books on their computers for a limited time, after which software automatically locks them out of the text. "For public libraries, we're still trying to figure out what the right business model is," says Martín Gómez, president of the Urban Libraries Council in Evanston, Ill.
Google's current library partners are centers of academic learning and are likely to remain so in almost any digitized future. For smaller university and public libraries, the world of digitized text could be more difficult. How will they keep up? Will their physical presence become unnecessary? "It's creating some interesting challenges for libraries - now not only having to maintain traditional print collections but having to have a presence in cyberspace," says Mr. Gómez.