Google Inc. is preparing for a significant expansion of its book digitization program with agreements reportedly imminent with public libraries in France and Italy.
The search giant's efforts in Europe come even as competitors in the U.S. are pushing for more scrutiny by the Department of Justice of Google's plans to scan and search-enable a wide range of books. In fact, concerns have been raised in Europe as well.
A Coup for Google?
Signing up the National Library of France to the Google digital library marks a major breakthrough for the Mountain View, California Internet company, given France's traditional resistance to what it sees as Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism.
The director of the National Library of France, Denis Bruckman, indicated last Tuesday that the prestigious French institution was close to surrendering to Google's powerful embrace.
"If Google can enable us to go faster and farther, then why not?" Bruckman told the business daily La Tribune. "Our negotiations with Google could be concluded within a few months."
France's change of heart is all down to money, La Tribune explained. The National Library has a digitization budget of just €5 million (US$ 7.1 million) per year but requires up to €80 million just to scan its collection of printed books dating from 1870 to 1940.
Exhibiting the caution typical of librarians, the National Library of France responded to La Tribune's report with a communiqué stressing that the Google agreement was not a done deal. "However, the Library has never ruled out a private partnership provided it conforms to the Culture Ministry's strategy for digital content and respects the principles of free access without charge exclusively to books that are not covered by copyright," it said.
Italy looks likely to follow in France's footsteps, with the Central National Library of Florence also in negotiations with Google for a digitization deal. "We have been talking to Google for quite a while," the Florence Library's director Antonia Fontana told reporters Wednesday. "I think it can only be an advantage for Italy. We obviously have to involve the National Library in Rome as well and resolve problems connected with copyright," the AGI news agency quoted her as saying.
"We and the French face the same economic problems. The Central National Library of Florence is the most important in the country and also has the task of cataloging and indexing everything that is published in Italian. It's a huge task for which we have neither the funds nor the personnel," Fontana said.
Google Italy spokeswoman Simona Panseri confirmed ongoing talks but declined to provide details. " We are talking with venture partners around the world and Italy is no exception. We have nothing specific to say at the moment though," Panseri said in a telephone interview.
Italy and France would add the homes of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to a network of public and academic libraries already amounting to about 30. Beyond the borders of the United States, Google has secured the cooperation of the Bodleian Library in Oxford and libraries in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Switzerland.
Next: The Vatican?
The priceless collections of the Vatican Library would surely constitute a tempting further prize, but the ecclesiastical institution appears indifferent to the allure of technological matrimony.
"We have had no contact with Google. We gave the matter some thought, but have ruled out the possibility for the moment," Ambrogio Piazzoni, the vice-prefect of the Vatican Library, said in a telephone interview.
Piazzoni, a layman, said the Vatican Library contained many books that were present in other libraries as well and did not have the same mission as national libraries of divulging a national culture. Furthermore, its printed books were less important than the treasures of its ancient manuscript collection.
"What is unique about our collection is the manuscripts, but they can't be satisfactorily read by OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technologies. For the moment manuscript pages can simply be treated as photos. Even if you put them online you can't search online for key words," Piazzoni said.
The Vatican's decision was not definitive however, Piazzoni said. "We thought about it and decided that it wasn't an appropriate move for the moment," he said. Technological advances could induce a change of heart at some time in the future, Piazzoni indicated.
Extensive digitization of the Vatican's collection would have been particularly useful just now: the 16th century palace housing the library is currently undergoing a three-year refurbishment, since the ancient floors were groaning under the weight of the books. So the library is actually closed.