By Malte Herwig
The room is filled with an uncommon sense of peace and beauty. At Oxford University's Bodleian Library, old folios stand side-by-side on oak bookshelves in the warm afternoon light. The chains librarians once used to shackle them to the tables to prevent them from being stolen were removed long ago. The books are free, and soon they will embark on their longest journey yet.
Librarians are not famous for spontaneous displays of emotion, but on this morning Sarah Thomas is an exception. "The digitization of books will accelerate the emergence of new knowledge tremendously," says the 58-year-old director of the Bodleian Library. The windows in her office look out on the sun-drenched spires of the library, founded in 1602 -- a glorious backdrop exemplifying old Europe and its scholarly tradition.
But Thomas is also looking forward to a completely digitized future, one which seems within reach now that the library has joined forces with American search engine Google. Under the terms of a 2005 deal, Google will digitize the library's collection as part of its Google Book Search project -- and the dot-com firm works at an astonishing pace. "Thanks to Google," says Thomas, "we can digitize more books in 12 months than we could otherwise do in 15 years."
Though not the only one of its kind, the Google project is enormous in scope, and it transforms otherwise level-headed academics into enthusiastic utopians unafraid to display their passion. Reg Carr, Thomas's predecessor in Oxford, saw the project as an opportunity to create "a better world for all."
Google plans to scan a total of about 1 million volumes from Oxford's library shelves. Stanford, Harvard and, more recently, the Bavarian State Library have also joined the program.
It is meant to be a win-win situation for both sides. The libraries receive digital copies of hundreds of thousands of their books from Google, quickly and free of charge, and the search engine is able to improve the quality and relevance of its search results.
Klaus Ceynowa, 47, Deputy Director General of the Bavarian State Library, prepared the Munich deal in secret negotiations. "It's nice when you don't have to constantly try to desperately scrape together money," he says, sitting in his Munich office, looking visibly relaxed.
Google is not disclosing any of the details of the joint project and has sworn the participating libraries to secrecy. One of the few details which are known is that Google is using equipment it developed itself to scan the books in carefully guarded buildings near the respective libraries.
There is a reason for all the secrecy: The company fears copycats as much as it does critics. Instead of working with fully automated scanning robots that protect the books, Google uses an army of workers. "Quality isn't that important to them, because they're currently the top dog in this market," says an industry insider, whose company is one of the market leaders in the field of scanning technology.
"Our product philosophy," says Google executive Jens Redmer, "is that we would rather get products going and optimize them as we go along, than never start them in the first place. We can process very large quantities while maintaining high quality."
But at the end of this monumental effort, the libraries could find themselves with many unusable digital copies in which pages are missing and passages are out of focus and illegible. To protect its lead, the powerful technology company prefers speed over quality. The motto of its scanning project could be summed up as: scan first and ask questions later.
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