Why Google's deal with Italy is a good thing for readers

Not every country has been so accommodating, but Italy seems happy to allow Google to digitize rare books.

An illuminated manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy. Google's agreement with the Italian government will include the digitization of works by Dante.

Good news for Google and also for readers hoping to brush up on their Dante: The Italian government and the search-engine giant have agreed that Google will digitize up to 1 million books from the national libraries in Florence and Rome. The books to be digitized were all published before 1868 (which means that copyright laws do not apply) and will include antiquarian texts, including works by Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo.

Although Google has struck similar deals with universities in England and Spain and a state museum in Germany, The Wall Street Journal notes that this is Google's "first publishing partnership with a national government."

It's a good deal for Google, which will be able to expand the offerings – and particularly the non-English-language offerings – of its Book Project, which currently lists about 12 million books. The deal also means a win in Europe where recent Google-related headlines have been unfortunate for the company. (A French court has ruled that Google committed copyright violation by scanning certain French-language titles, and an Italian court recently slapped Google officials with jail sentences in connection with an ugly abuse-related video made popular on YouTube.)

It's also a good deal for the Italian government. Google will bear all costs for the project just at a moment when budget cuts are making it harder for Italian libraries to preserve their valuable texts. The Italian libraries will also be able to share digitized copies of the scanned books with readers on other platforms, including Europeana, the online publishing project of the European Commission.

But most of all it's a good deal for readers. A million years ago (well, in the 1980s), when I was at grad school in New York studying Italian renaissance poetry, I went to the New York Public Library to consult an antiquarian text. Holding my credit card as collateral, they gave me a pair of gloves, ushered me into the Rare Book room, and let me handle (very carefully) a yellowing text printed in Naples several centuries earlier.

It was a thrill I will never forget. There is no substitute for laying your hands on a text like that.

However, for every bibliophile and/or Italophile who does not live in the shadow of a major cultural institution with the stature and holdings of the New York Public Library (and that now includes me), the Google deal is a very good thing.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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