Scholarship and Libraries in Transition Symposium
March 10, 2006
Thank you for inviting me to be part of your symposium and your thoughtful agenda.
We are all here because of our love of books and what they mean to our world.
Perhaps no one appreciated this more than the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, and the embodiment of his appreciation is at the Library of Congress, which he resurrected after British troops destroyed it in the War of 1812.
He sold his vast, personal collection of books to the government at a price well below their monetary value, and his holdings became the core of one of the world’s great libraries.
Jefferson knew the true value of books. Years earlier, when a disastrous fire destroyed his family home, his initial response was not to inquire whether anyone was hurt, but to ask, “What about my books?”
I know that same question—What about my books?—is very much on the minds of librarians, authors and publishers, as digitization reshapes our views of libraries and knowledge.
And when talking about the impact of mass digitization, Google is the 800-pound gorilla in the library.
It was four years ago when one of our alumni, Google co-founder Larry Page, said he would like to digitize the University of Michigan Library—an institution of some seven million volumes. Digitizing the entire Michigan library was a project our librarians predicted would take more than one thousand years. Google could make it happen in six.
The University of Michigan library is among the largest in the world, and is one of the few academic research libraries that holds open its doors to the public. And we have a proven track record in digitizing materials, including several groundbreaking projects
This standing made it all but natural for us to immediately and enthusiastically embrace an idea that can—and will—preserve the whole of printed knowledge for future generations, and enable research never before thought possible.
The Google Book project was announced with great fanfare in December 2004. The crux of this project was that great library collections would now be searchable for anyone in the world with an Internet connection.
The global library was under way. It was no longer a question of “whether,” but rather “how” and “when.”
Society turns to its universities for the printed word because books are the foundation of our institutions. Books are what the first president of Michigan called our “fixed capital,” more vital than any professor, any classroom, or any laboratory.
We are the repository for the whole of human knowledge, and we must safeguard it for future generations. It is ours to protect and to preserve.
The soul of scholarship is research. From the current to the ancient, we must make all information discoverable to faculty, students, and the public.
Our former provost, Paul Courant, who is speaking tomorrow morning, likes to say that General Motors does not need to maintain the tools for its 1957 Chevys, and would have a hard time manufacturing a car from that year. But a university is responsible for stewarding the knowledge of 1957, and for all the years before and after—the books and magazines, the widely known research findings and the narrow monographs, the arcane and the popular.
Well before Google, we were digitizing between five thousand and eight thousand volumes every year in an effort to preserve portions of the collection. These are works that are brittle or damaged, and at risk of being lost forever.
We know that about one-quarter of the books in our general collections—more than one-and-a-half million volumes—are brittle; another 3.5 million books are at risk because they are printed on acidic paper that eventually will break down.
You will find similar situations across the country. For the first time ever, a nationwide survey has assessed how well our cultural institutions are tending to some 4.8 billion artifacts—repeat, billion—the majority of which are books held at libraries. The University of Michigan was one of nearly 3,400 institutions that took part in this massive Heritage Health Index. And the findings that came outlast December were discouraging.
As a country, we are at risk of losing millions and millions of items that constitute our heritage and our culture, because of a lack of conservation and planning. And libraries fare the worst when it comes to dedicating resources to preservation work. So conservation efforts are paramount.
Our library at Michigan has been the national leader in creating digital copies of works that are at risk, out of print, or languishing in warehouses. We were digitizing books long before Google knocked on our door, and we will continue our preservation efforts long after our contract with Google ends. We’ve just heard from John Wilkin, who likes to say, “We believed in this forever.”
Digitizing books complements our work. It amplifies our efforts, and reduces our costs. Digitizing does not replace books, but instead expands their presence in the marketplace.
In the case of Google, we are allowing them to scan all of our books—those in the public domain and those still in copyright—and they provide our library with a digital copy. We insisted on this for one very important reason: Our library must be able to do what great research libraries do—make it possible to discover knowledge. The archive copy achieves that.
This copy is entirely, and only, for preservation and research. As for the public domain works, we will use them in every way possible. For in-copyright works, we will make certain that they remain dark until falling into the public domain.
We have a deep respect for intellectual property—it is our number one product. That respect extends to the dark archive and protecting copyrights. We know there are limits on access to works covered by copyright. If, and when, we pursue those uses, we will be conservative and we will follow the law.
And we will protect all copyrighted materials in that archive. Merely because our library possesses a digital copy of a work does not mean we are entitled to, nor will we, ignore the law and distribute it to people to use in ways not authorized by copyright. Trust me, students will not be reading digital copies of “Harry Potter” in their dorm rooms.
At the same time, we absolutely must think beyond today. We know that digital copies may be the only versions of work that survive into the future. We also know that every book in our library, regardless of its copyright status today, will eventually fall into the public domain and be owned by society.
As a public university, we have the unique task to preserve them all, and we will. Remember, we believed in this forever. We have been a leader in preservation and will continue to do so—I expect nothing less of Michigan.
By digitizing today’s books, through our own efforts and in partnership with others, we are protecting the written word for all time.
Just as powerful as the preservation aspect of digitizing books is the fact our ventures will result in a magnitude of discovery that seems almost incomprehensible.
I could not have imagined, that in my lifetime, so much diffuse information literally would be at my fingertips. It is an educator’s dream, knowing that the vast body of information held in the great libraries of the world will be universally searchable and, in the case of public domain works, accessible.
We live in a digital world. It is how we communicate, how we do research, and how we learn. On a typical day in the United States, 60 million adults are using an online search engine. That is a staggering use of a tool that has been part of our culture for less than a decade, and still is in its infancy.
It also represents a staggering opportunity. Search engines have genuinely reshaped our world. And young people, of course, are the savviest users. They do not know any other way to work, as every librarian in this room will tell you.
When students do research, they use the Internet for digitized library resources more than they use the library proper. It’s that simple. So we are obligated to take the resources of the library to the Internet.
New technology is disrupting all segments of our society. Newspapers and TV networks are trying to figure out how to make money with online editions. Hollywood is experimenting with simultaneously releasing movies to theatres, DVD and cable. Cell phones are everywhere.
Universities are not islands in this sea of technology. We must change with our students, and that means embracing the Internet and all it can, and does, offer.
The Making of America project gives powerful testimony to how digitization and the Internet can reshape scholars’ access to knowledge. For those who have not used it, the Making of America is a website developed by Michigan and Cornell, using primary sources from 1850 to 1876.
We scanned and catalogued hundreds of volumes—works that sat for years in an off-site storage facility. But our librarians suspected there would be a demand for them because they cover such a rich period in American history.
The librarians were right. A collection of material that previously had been used by a campus of forty-thousand was now online for all the world to see.
Soon, the Making of America site was logging up to one million web hits a month. And we keep adding books and journals. We continually hear from users about new discoveries and new knowledge generated by their research on Making of America.
Let me tell you just one such story. It involves the 1860 book, “Bees and bee-keeping,” a seemingly obscure work that, as a printed piece, had little demand at Michigan, a research university without an agriculture school. It has turned out to be the bible of beekeeping, with the business advice dispensed before the Civil War still perfectly applicable to today’s beekeepers, who continually download the article.
The treasures unearthed through research on the Making of America site are what a Michigan librarian calls “instant gratification of a one-in-a-million need.”
Using the technology of digitization and the reach of the Internet, connecting people with information creates a new demand for material that takes researchers in unexpected directions. That will expand exponentially with projects like Google Book Search and the Library of Congress’s World Digital Library, whose technology and access will generate a new market for books, and a financial benefit for authors and publishers.
At its essence, digitizing books and widening their exposure is about the public good. I believe it transcends debates about snippets, and copyright, and who owns what when, and rises to the very ideal of a university—particularly a great public university like Michigan. Our work is about the social good of promoting and sharing knowledge. As a university, we have no other choice but to make this happen.
Universities are places of deep exploration and bold experimentation. Great ideas are born on our campuses: Hewlett-Packard was born at a university, as was the artificial heart, the integrated circuit chip and, yes, Google. We provide solutions for our future, and I believe digitization ventures are among the best answers we have to sharing knowledge on a global plane.
Today marks a revolutionary event in the sharing of knowledge, and not just because all of you are gathered in this auditorium. March 10 is the anniversary of the telephone and Alexander Graham Bell’s discovery that voice could be transmitted over great distances.
This was a world-shattering technology and one that would completely transform how information was shared. Sound familiar?
Of course, no one knew this in 1876. When the telephone first started out, it was seen as a new business tool. The Bell Telephone Company set up shop in cities, and marketed its phones to corporations and businessmen as a new version of the telegraph system. But there was something different about this technology that the Bell executives didn’t foresee: the telephone could convey emotion.
The sound of people’s voices carried the happy news of a baby or the sorrow of an unexpected death—something the dots and dashes of the telegraph could never do. Everyone wanted a telephone.
What started out as a business technology evolved into an essential social tool that is used more than ever in today’s world. I don’t believe that 130 years ago, when Alexander Graham Bell first shouted into his telephone, he could have envisioned that his invention would dictate how, when, and where people communicate.
We are in the early days of digitization. Where it will take scholarship and research is unknown. What it means for libraries, librarians and publishers—well, this symposium is an important discussion for helping to determine that.
Wherever digitizing books takes us, I am certain universities will be involved, because we will always advocate the diffusion of knowledge and the sharing of scholarship. Mass digitization makes that possible—it takes the corpus of human knowledge and puts it in the hands of anyone who wants it.
It can, and will, change the world, and I want the University of Michigan to be part of it.