Digitization And Transportation: Northwestern University’s Google Books Project

Beginning today, Northwestern University’s Transportation Library begins its Google Books Digitization Project.

The University Libraries and Google are partnering to digitize hundreds of thousands of print volumes from their collections, rendering the contents readily available to scholars and researchers worldwide.

This is no small undertaking. The Transportation Library alone is one of the most extensive in the United States, containing over 500,000 items.

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of the Midwest’s Big Ten Schools’ plus the University of Chicago, signed on to digitize their libraries in June, 2007 but the process is just getting underway this Fall.

The project is expected to take several years, but the Transportation Library is one of the first campus libraries to send library items to Google for digitization. Google covers the transportation and digitization costs and Northwestern has received a generous donation from the Office of the Provost to help cover other technical costs.

We are told that books sent to Google for digitization may be off the shelves for up to three months. Once everything eligible for converting into electronic format has been digitized, those searching the library catalog will have the choice of borrowing the original print item or accessing the full-text document online.

Results from Google Book Search show up in both general Google searches as well as through the dedicated Google Books site.

The entire Google Books project has been a source of controversy over the last decade. Some hail the initiative’s capacity to provide “anytime, anywhere” access to all of human knowledge. Others question the application of copyright laws for works published in one place but accessed around the world.

The Google Books enterprise is a complicated endeavor. While access to the ever-increasing (and increasingly digitized) world of knowledge is great, how can Google maintain a high-level of retrievability from a growing pool of millions of items? A recent article in The Atlantic highlights this challenge, with a concise overview of “Rich Results,” Google’s latest search algorithm that helps users find what they’re looking for…even when they don’t specifically ask for it.

Last month, Google speculated that it had scanned more than 15 million books from more than 100 countries in over 400 languages since 2004. Google Books’ Engineering Director James Crawford went on to state:

“Our shared vision of bringing all the incredible content stored in the world’s books online depends on working with libraries, publishers, authors and book lovers.

The greater the diversity of content on the web, the more useful it becomes. And the more people who can access the information cataloged in books, the more enlightening those works become.”

Our goals are the same. Here at Metro’s Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library & Archive, we have embarked on a digitization project of our own (sans Google) as outlined here. We want to provide greater access to our rich collections, make items more easily findable and retrievable, and preserve information and knowledge for generations to come.