BU Today

Science & Tech

Librarians at the Gate

Librarians agree it’s time to put their holdings online — but how?


Robert Hudson, director of BU’s Mugar Memorial Library, wonders how society will preserve its intellectual content.

The Internet changes everything. And libraries are a big fat target for change, with academic libraries presenting the fattest target of all because they house texts and research papers not available to the general public. Putting those texts online is seen as far more useful than scanning texts that anyone can access. Consequently, Google has been approaching academic libraries with an offer to scan their texts into an online database at no cost. Some universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, have accepted the offer, which has a few strings attached. Other universities have joined alternative efforts to put some of their texts online. BU, for example, along with the 18 other institutional members of the Boston Library Consortium, is partnering with the Open Content Alliance.

To learn more about the migration of library-held texts to online databases, BU Today talked with Robert Hudson, director of BU’s Mugar Memorial Library, who as a medievalist takes the long view.

BU Today: Do you imagine a world in which anyone with access to a computer will be able to read any book?
Hudson: I can definitely imagine this happening. The timeline projected by Brewster Kahle of the Open Content Alliance is about 10 years of scanning. The next trick will be to get everyone a computer. Because I am trained as a medievalist, I tend to take a longer view of digitization. We are in the beginning stages of this digital age. It remains to be seen if Google, the OCA, or other efforts will be able to sustain themselves in this arena. Past lessons teach us that the useful life span of recent information technologies can be very short. I have many 5-to-10-year-old floppy disks, for instance, that can no longer be read because the data degraded, or the software is several generations old, or the necessary physical computer no longer exists. By contrast, the technology for the current book has been successful since at least the time of Gutenberg. I say let’s give digital technology 500 years and see.

What is the Open Content Alliance, and what is it trying to do?
The Open Content Alliance scans material and makes it openly available to all. What the Open Content Alliance is allowing BU to do is access a much deeper collection than we could ever build. They are digitizing works that are in the public domain or items for which copyright has been obtained. This effort has great appeal to libraries, because it makes the field more open, free, and library-like. Librarians believe that information should be free to share with anyone who wants it.

How does that effort compare with Google’s?
Google, which is also scanning material, has a commercial interest in the content, and the company restricts access to material it scans to its own search software. The OCA is committed to values of openness and access. Both approaches have value, but there is worry in the research library community about the potential implications of placing digital copies of all the books in one commercial entity after years of being openly available on library shelves.

Recently, one of the big issues is the capturing of scientific and scholarly work by journal publications. Some of that work generated on this campus is published in scholarly journals, and if we want it, we have to buy it back. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, is working on more stringent guidelines that will make publicly funded research freely available within 12 months of publication in a commercial source.

The larger question is how society will go about transmitting and preserving its intellectual content and heritage. In more ancient times the Library of Alexandria made an effort similar to Google’s in an attempt to concentrate much knowledge of the known world in a single place. The result was, in fact, the loss of much of it through a series of fires. The lesson here may be to make information freely and widely available in order to guarantee its survival rather than to concentrate it in a single entity.

Is that why BU did not go with Google?
No. Google approached only the most deep and historic institutional library collections. BU was not approached that I know of. BU is a member of the Open Content Alliance. This is a recent example of a long history of libraries working together.

But it sounds like you are in ideological agreement with the Open Content Alliance, rather than with Google.
I think that all these efforts should go forward. If Google can make a sensible commercial venture from this, it could benefit many libraries and individuals. The ultimate goal is to make the content of books more widely available. It is not yet clear whether the commercial or the open access model will succeed.

Are all BU libraries members of the OCA?
The libraries are members of the OCA through our affiliation with the Boston Library Consortium, not directly to the OCA.

How much does OCA charge to scan a book?
The economy of scale for the scanning center means that the charge is 10 cents per page.

How much will that cost Mugar, and where will the money come from?
Our library is committed to scanning the equivalent of about 300 books. We have promised $11,000 of the $858,000 committed by the consortium. The money represents less than one-quarter of one percent of our book, periodical, storage, and preservation budget. We spend $5.2 million on books and periodicals every year.

What books and documents will BU submit to the OCA database?
We don’t know yet. We are running collection analysis software that will identify which documents in our consortium are unique.

Why is this important for Boston University?
The libraries are the crossroads for teaching, learning, research, and student life at BU. The digitization project is one layer of the libraries’ strategy to transform their space to respond to the needs of the University. In combination with remote storage and growing electronic resources, it will allow the libraries to free spaces for more interactive and collaborative activities in concert with the needs of students and the direction of the curriculum.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.