Online library gift to readers the world over

CNJ staff

As if the Internet didn’t already have more information than most people can process in a lifetime, Google, the search engine company, is planning to digitize entire books — millions of them — from major university and public libraries. Thus people at their home computers will have access to books previously available only to scholars who could travel to Stanford, Cambridge or Oxford.

Eventually the complete libraries of Stanford and the University of Michigan — the alma maters of Google’s co-founders — will be in the database. Harvard, Oxford and the New York Public Library will initially make only part of their collections available.

Books on which the copyright has expired will be downloadable for free. Access to books still under copyright will be more limited, and information about where they can be purchased or perused in hard copy will be available.

It’s important to note that this massive project, which will bring benefits to all of humankind that one can only imagine before people start using the service, is brought to us by a private, profit-seeking company, not a government program. Many libraries have wanted to digitize their contents but have found the project too expensive. Google reportedly has developed a scanning machine that is much gentler with original books than previous high-speed scanning technologies.

Forbes.com suggested, perhaps with a touch of snideness, that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page “may be a bit less utopian in their desire to create the book database. Google is fiercely combating rival search engines such as Yahoo! and Microsoft’s MSN, and the online library may draw in millions more readers — and advertising dollars.”

If this is true — that Google is doing it more for competitive reasons than out of altruistic concern for the spread of knowledge — it simply illustrates the capacity of a free and competitive marketplace to confer benefits on consumers. Even when — or perhaps especially when — producers have only their own interests at heart, in a competitive market they must provide something of value to consumers who have real choices to succeed in making money.

We suspect Google’s motives are mixed; they want to do good and do well simultaneously. The free market offers them the opportunity.

Nice going — that’s what we call a “wow” gift.