The British Library will soon digitise and make available 250,000 out-of-copyright books and papers from its collection through a new partnership with Google. On the face of it it’s a marriage of opposites: one is the culmination of a 258-year-old accumulation of musty, mildewy knowledge, having grown out of the original Library of the British Museum. The other is all binary and office bean bags. Yet the two are actually strangely similar in what they do. In fact it’s a curious trait of the modern world that a pimped up version of a library can end up one of the most powerful organisations on the planet. Without even needing to issue late fines.
The British Library’s digital collection is expected to increase from 1.25m items to 50m by 2020, as it sniffs out new ways to open its collection to a wider audience. Google Books has scanned more than 15m texts since its foundation in 2004: it can now add feminist pamphlets about Marie-Antoinette from 1791 and Narciso Monturiol's 1858 plans for the first combustion-engine driven submarine.
You have to hand it to the tech giant: it has converted its gift for algorithms into an ability to earn mouth-watering sums simply rehashing things that have been sitting there for ages. It started out pointing us towards stuff that happened to already be online; later, it started showing us how we live in streets on a planet called Earth – nothing new there; and now it’s able to rinse it from works that were written 300 years ago. You can’t argue with that as a business model.
We jest. Google’s not charging for any of this stuff, and it’s certainly doing a remarkably valuable service. It’s already worked with around 40 libraries on digitisation projects, none of which made it any cash – at least not directly. Although the traffic won’t hurt its bid to sell more advertising. And it’s unavoidable these days that a project of this sort simply requires the involvement of corporations with significant muscle to pull it off.
Indeed it’s good to see a library pushing forward into the new era, rather than succumbing to the cuts like many of the country’s knowledge emporia. Let’s hope more libraries are able to draw commercial partners to help them overcome spending cuts. The other option is to go the Big Society route, enslaving teams of pensioners to sit and manually type out feminist tomes and sub-aquatic Spanish blueprints.