back to article British Library hands 200 years of history to Google

The British Library is handing 250,000 books to Google for scanning into the Google Books project. The Library had previously partnered with Microsoft which digitised books from the 19th century and Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. The Library only owned one of the notebooks - the second was from Bill Gates' own collection. The …


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  1. Southern
    Thumb Up

    Excellent stuff

    Regardless of who gets the job of scanning in those documents, I'm pleased to hear that the British Library is taking steps to convert their libraries into digital files. Hopefully there will be something of use to researchers who were otherwise unable to locate specific texts or travel to the library to do so.

  2. alain williams Silver badge

    Also help them to last longer

    Paper degrades with time and is costly to restore or keep in good condition. Bytes (in open, documented formats) should last much, much longer.

    1. Helena Handcart

      Don't be so hasty

      Digital storage has only been around for 50 years or so, and most digital content available now is much younger than that, whereas the books that are being digitized are sometimes ten times as old and are clearly in a robust enough state to be handled by Google.

      The effects and problems associated with long-term digital archiving have yet to be seen. Not that I'm against such archving, quite the opposite, but it should not be assumed that digital is "better" in some regard. Thankfully there has been lots of research, contingency plans, and strategies drawn up to manage digital archiving, but only time will tell if it stands the test of time (to paraphrase Van Halen)

      1. Adrian Challinor

        Too true

        I have documents on my computer that I can't read. They were created in an early version of some Apple word processonf 22 years ago. They are intact, but unreadable in any modern programme I have available.

        I have tapes (35 years old), on 6250 BPI reels, that I cant read now. Bye Bye University final year project.

        My DAT tapes may well survive the century the company claims. Doubt the DAT reader will (I have been through three in 10 years), and they are now becoming like hens teeth for the tapes I have. Yes, its fine to upgrade, but what about the tapes I have in the safe stpre?

        As the BL shows, documents last several 100 years and are still readable. Stone tablets even longer. Now thats technology built to last.

        Mine's the one with the stolen Rosetta Stone in the pocket, yes the heavy one.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. JamieC64

          an early version of some Apple word processor...

          Going by my experience with doc files from old versions of MS Word, I think there's a very high probability that you'd be able to read the text (if not the formatting) by opening the files with a text editor/hex editor/binary editor like the old DOS Edit.

        3. Dr Paul Taylor

          unreadable data

          > unreadable in any modern program[me] I have available

          strings? C? or are they not "modern"?

          I'll bet your 22-year old program is easier to reverse-engineer than PDF is.

      2. fandom

        Why not?

        The good thing about digital copies is that you can move them to a new medium on a yearly basis.

    2. Hollerith 1

      Where have you been?

      There's been a huge scandal in the library world for some time now about the destruction (throwing away) or paper copies and keeping only the microfilm/microfiche and now digital versions. But paper lasts for thousands of years. We are still finding paper in archaeological sites in Egypt with lost ancient Greek plays and other writing on them, all still viable, all still readable. Paper and vellum are both tough materials. I have read medieval parchment documents that are still whole. entire, and clear, while my microfilm version of the same documents is already degrading, due to not being able to store it in optimal conditions.

      We have already seen formats of the last fifty years change, become obsolete, and become unreadable. I am sure other Reg readers will name them. I found a 3.5 inch disk the other month but my all-card reader, which I retained for just such a possibility, gave up trying to read it, and so all those data are lost.

      I am all for copies of material. I would rather students read Austen online or on a Kindle than to keep requesting the original edition at the British Library, where they do not say no and are thus allowing these books to be thumbed to pieces by the merely curious. The idea of a single copy of anything makes my blood run cold.

      I do share the disquiet of other Reg readers on who is doing this digitising. Already in the USA and Europe there is deep concern about handing the only digital version to a company that exists to make profit. France is digitising its own patrimony itself, while the UK merrily hands it to an international company whose HQ is in a country that interprets copyright to its own benefit. The British Library was recently exposed as actually throwing out books. It seems that we cannot trust these librarians to understand that they are the custodians of all materials in their collection. I see these latest deals as the little lambs of the BL wagging their tails as they skip to the slaughter.

      1. Helena Handcart


        "We are still finding paper in archaeological sites in Egypt"

        Nope we are finding papyrus in Egypt, a completely different technology. Paper was a _very_ long way off, even for the Chinese.

        1. Hollerith 1

          Correct, but point still valid

          Ms Handcart, you are quite right: I typed in haste. But I have handled books from pre-1500 and newspapers from the 18th century and they were holding up well. Old rag-based paper is amazing. I have seen early 'Advertisers' in better shape than crumbling Penguin paperbacks from the 1930s, but the better acid-free paper we're seeing should last for many centuries.

          Papyrus and vellum and so on have staying power. They live even when the electric sub-station is dead. Digital requires the juice be flowing somewhere, simply to retrieve.

          I still think that national or international consortia digitising material as an inheritance and resource for their citizens, or for the whole human race, is a wonderful thing, and applaud the initiatives that exist. I don't applaud handling over this rare and precious stuff for the 'Don't do Evil' guys.

          1. nyelvmark

            Paper is no good

            Yeah, yeah, I've heard all the guff about this new-fangled paper-and-ink stuff, but I ask you: Who's going to trust that? If you really want your magnum opus to survive down the millennia, you'll do what serious professional writers have done for centuries: carve runes into stone. Runes don't fade and discolour, the way that ink does, and a well-manufactured stone tablet will survive even a conflagration. Backups are barely necessary, but if you want to be sure, a few dozen slave scribes will be able to make a complete copy of all your data in only a few short years. Why anybody wastes their time on these nonsensical modern fads is beyond me.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      You are kidding, right?

      "Paper degrades with time and is costly to restore or keep in good condition. Bytes (in open, documented formats) should last much, much longer."

      Paper will undoubtedly last infinitely longer than any currently stored digital media. In a century from now no one will know a damn thing about any of us because most of it (digitally and magnetically stored as it is) will have gone. Even optical media -- its not stable.

  3. karl 15
    Thumb Up

    Good News

    This is good news, my weekends will be filled for a long time

  4. Paul Frankheimer


    This is good news. Especially the fact that it can be republished also on a non-Google, non-BL platform like Europeana. Google seems to get more permissive with the license arrangements it offers to libraries and this is a good thing.

    1. Adrian Challinor

      Does the BL get any money from this?

      After all, its my Tax Pound that has gone in to maintaining this library for the good of Fun Factory, it seems.

      1. nyelvmark


        >>After all, its my Tax Pound that has gone in to maintaining this library for the good of Fun Factory, it seems.

        "His rage passes description - the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk who have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted."

        So, how often do you use the British Library, Adrian?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Will these digitised out of copyright books ...

    suddenly acquire a 'copyright google' watermark?

  6. scrubber

    To paraphrase

    We're gonna need a bigger Kindle.

    1. Herbert Fruchtl
      Thumb Up

      Prophetic words

      > We're gonna need a bigger Kindle.

      I don't know if you meant it like that, but what guarantees the survival of books is the existence of many copies. The books that have survived up to now are the ones of which at least one copy survived fires/floods/bombings/dry rot/religious zealots, the chance of which was proportional to the number of copies in different places.

      If the Kindle Mark 15 in 2025 comes with the out-of-copyright section of the British Library preloaded on 10% of its storage capacity, and people can't be bothered deleting it but just keep copying the complete contents to their next device, the books will survive somewhere.

      I can see only two developments invalidating my theory:

      - The move to "cloud storage" means there aren't any actual copies.

      - Disney and friends keep stopping old content falling out of copyright.

      Let's not hope so...

  7. jacobbe

    valuable collection

    Clearly the collection is unique and thus very valuable. I do hope that the BL has not given away our heritage too cheaply or have entered into a restrictive deal.

  8. Miek


    "A spokesman for the British Library said the deal with Microsoft was simply different and there was no question of scale problems with its technology"

    No just problems using it with software other than Microsoft's. At least partnering with Google will increase the number of folks that are able to use the digital archive.

    1. handle

      Shame on the British Library

      They were hijacked by Microsoft to act as an ad for Vista - at one point their website was trumpeting material that could only be viewed with that OS. I complained to no avail - obviously they were in Microsoft's pockets. Now it seems that has gone the way of Vista and now I expect they are in Google's pockets, but you're right - at least more people will be able to access the stuff. I'm not surprised to hear about their newspaper deal - they are either corrupt or very stupid.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Eternal copyright

    While we're on about Goggle and copyrighting stuff, what about Goggle Maps?

    I can see a God's-eye view of my house, in a little window that says 'Copyright2011 Google' but it shows an empty field next door where, actually, houses were built in March 2006.

    If the pictures were taken in (say) 2005, how come Goggle can update its copyright this year (and every year ad infinitum)?

  10. Dr Paul Taylor

    Infrastructure rights

    Maybe we should see this as building infrastructure in cyberspace.

    I seem to recall that ownership of the Channel Tunnel passes from Eurotunnel to the State after some period of time during which they get to recoup their costs. Old bridges that we now walk or drive over for nothing used to have tolls. That's how you get the private sector to do things that we need.

    So long as the BL and its readers get to use the digital version for nothing after ten years or whatever this seems to be ok. What we don't want is for Google to own the BL indefinitely.

    1. Paul Johnston


      Been across the Humber Bridge recently?

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Good god!

    You can just see the Library of Congress handing centuries of historical texts to a British or even European company to make sh*t loads from adverts - jesus ****ing wept!

  12. Rodrigo Valenzuela

    this reminds me the following article


  13. Ian Tresman

    Good deal

    If it costs the public nothing to scan, and nothing to access the scans, then it looks like a good deal. Google will offer the option to produce on-demand books, and if you don't like, print your own, or look at the originals. Looks good all round.

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