Library digitization efforts stall

After the recent collapse of an ambitious digitization project, most of Yale’s books will remain exclusively on shelves — at least for now.

In May, only seven months into what was supposed to be an 18-month-long effort to put images of 100,000 of Yale’s libraries’ books on the Web, Microsoft unexpectedly withdrew funding from its partnership with the University. Although the software giant has pledged to complete scanning of the approximately 32,000 volumes already sent to the scanners, the remaining 68,000 tomes that were part of the original contract will not move off the stacks.

The company’s decision to cease digitization came abruptly and “without explicit reasons for [its] decision to close down Live Book Search,” University Librarian Alice Prochaska wrote in an e-mail to the News, although she added that the company honored its contract to give at least 60 days’ notice before ceasing digitization.

The cessation of the digitization of Yale’s archives was part of a larger move by Microsoft to shut down its Live Book Search, begun in 2006, which had also collaborated on scanning projects with Cornell University, The University of California system and the British Library, among others. Microsoft’s exit leaves only one major private firm in the digitizing market — former competitor Google, which already counts Harvard University, Stanford University and the New York Public Library among its partners.

From 2006 to 2008, Microsoft and Google raced each other to digitize the world’s major library collections. But Google, which started its program a year earlier than Microsoft, simply digitized more books over the past three years.

The University, meanwhile, will continue to collaborate with Kirtas Technologies — which Microsoft had subsidized to carry out the Yale job — to scan the 32,000 volumes already subsidized by Microsoft, most of which come from Yale’s art-history, history and religious-studies collections, Prochaska said.

Out of the 32,000 books already sent away, the library ultimately expects that about 5,000 will not be able to be scanned because of their age and fragility, said Jennifer Weintraub, the library’s digital collections specialist. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Kirtas should finish digitization by late 2008, she said.

The library’s next step is unclear. With the struggle between Internet giants Microsoft and Google to digitize library collections apparently over, Yale and Microsoft’s other former partners must now pursue other options.

The library is considering other ways of continuing the digitization, Prochaska said. In addition to drawing upon specific endowments set aside for Yale’s library collections, she said, the library will seek new funds from donors and grants. Another obvious alternative is a partnership with Google.

“It’s entirely possible,” Weintraub said when asked whether such an alliance were plausible.

Such a move would reignite a debate already underway in the library world about accessibility to digitized books. Because Microsoft and Google both restricted searches on each other’s sites, critics in the library world panned Yale’s and Microsoft’s partnership in November 2007 as the commercialization of a public resource.

“We want to ensure that the material is open and available to everybody,” Barbara Preece, executive director of the Boston Library Consortium, said in an interview with the News last November, referring to library holdings digitized across the country.

In response to such concerns, Yale’s library will allow free public access to the digitized books through not only the library Web site but also the Open Content Alliance, a Yahoo-backed nonprofit organization aimed at making digital collections as accessible as possible.

“We are delighted to share our electronic treasures freely on the Internet,” Prochaska said.

But first, Yale must find a way to get those treasures onto the Web.

Contact derek tam at derek.tam@yale.edu

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