by Mary Sue Coleman
Some authors and publishers have cried foul regarding Google’s digital library initiative, sparking debate about intellectual property rights in an online age. Beyond the specific legal challenges emerging in the wake of such a sea change, there are deeply important public policy issues at stake. We must not lose sight of the transformative nature of Google’s plan or the public good that can come from it.
Throughout history, most of the world’s printed knowledge has been created, preserved and used only by society’s elites—those for whom education and power meant access to the great research libraries. Now, groundbreaking tools for mass digitization are poised to change that paradigm. We believe the result can be a widening of human conversation comparable to the emergence of mass literacy itself.
Google plans to make its index searchable to every person in the world who enjoys access to the Internet. For those works that remain in copyright, a search will reveal brief excerpts along with information about how to buy the work or borrow it from a public library. Searches of work in the public domain will yield access to complete texts online.
Imagine what this means for scholars and the general public, who, until now, might have discovered only a fraction of the material written on a subject. Or picture a small, impoverished school—in America or anywhere in the world—that does not have access to a substantial library but does have an Internet connection.
This enormous shift is already upon us. Students coming to my campus today belong to the Net Generation. By the time they were in middle school, the Internet was a part of their daily lives. As we watch the way our students search for and use information, this much is clear: If information is not digitized, it will not be found.
Libraries and educational institutions are the only entities whose mission is to preserve knowledge through the centuries. It is a crucial role, one outside the interest of corporate entities and separate from the whims of the market. If libraries do not archive and curate, there is substantial risk that entire bodies of work will be lost.
Universities and the knowledge they offer should be accessible by all.
We must continue to ensure access to the vast intellectual opportunity and knowledge we generate and preserve. The digitization of information is a profound gesture that holds open our doors. Limiting access to information is tantamount to limiting the opportunities of our citizens.
Criticism of the Google library project revolves around questions of intellectual property. Universities are no strangers to the responsible management of complex copyright, permission and security issues; we deal with them every day in our classrooms, libraries, laboratories and performance halls. We will continue to work within the current criteria for fair use as we move ahead with digitization.
But we believe deeply that this endeavor exemplifies the spirit under which our nation’s copyright law was developed: to encourage the free exchange of ideas in the service of innovation and societal progress. The protections of copyright are designed to balance the rights of the creator with the rights of the public. At its core is the most important principle of all: to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, not to stifle such exchange.
No one believed more fervently in the diffusion of knowledge than Thomas Jefferson, who resurrected the Library of Congress, using his own books, after its predecessor was destroyed by fire. We must continue to heed his message:
“And it cannot be but that each generation succeeding to the knowledge acquired by all those who preceded it, adding to it their own acquisitions and discoveries, and handing the mass down for successive and constant accumulation, must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind, not infinitely, as some have said, but indefinitely, and to a term which no one can fix and foresee.”
I worry that we are unnecessarily fearful of a world where our libraries can be widely accessed and that our fear will strangle the exchange of ideas so critical to our Founders. As these technologies are developed, our policies must help ensure that people can find information and that printed works are preserved for future generations.
The writer is president of the University of Michigan, whose library is one of five that have partnered with Google on its digitization project.