I had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., last weekend with my husband and two kids, and one of my must-sees was the Library of Congress and their copy of one of the original Gutenberg bibles. The Thomas Jefferson building’s main entrance is a massive stone monument that reflects the importance of what it holds inside: the largest library collection in the world. Security was similar at the door to other monuments around the city, with a body scanner and uniformed bag checker. As soon as we got in, I asked for a map and the location of the famous bible, which I imagined was quite difficult to find among the stacks of books, but there it was, right around the corner, behind glass in a wooden case.
After the initial awe faded, I felt kind of silly for wanting to see the real thing; I mean, what this book represented for publishing, religion, and society as a whole was so much more than the physical archive of its pages. Apart from that, what could anyone really do with this ancient bible, encased and enshrined in the basement of the Library of Congress? After a quick look around, I also wondered where all the books were. Apparently, the Library of Congress is a “closed stack system,” where you cannot wander through the stacks, but instead have to request material to look at in one of the “reading rooms” well in advance, and you cannot borrow a book to take home with you.
The Library of Congress has more than 160 million items total in its catalog, adding approximately 12,000 items daily. About 37 million of these are books and other printed materials. The Library of Congress does not have a program to digitize its books, but it has digitized a large collection of photographs, letters, and newspapers. To compare, Google Books currently has more than 30 million books scanned into its digital archive, only 7 million less than the Library of Congress’ physical book holdings, but this gap has probably narrowed since the last count.
Considering the fact that for all intents and purposes, the material at the Library of Congress is fully searchable but items are not freely accessible to most people, and that the same is true of most items in the Google Books library, there is not a big difference between the two at the moment. Readers are still locked out from content unless they pay for it in the marketplace, but are able to see glimmers of information through snippets and metadata. It is safe to say that Google, a private for-profit organization, now owns the largest library in the world, or soon will.
Many of the libraries of the world have holdings that are meant for preservation, to be protected and reserved for use by those who have the credentials, funding, or sheer good luck to be located nearby and be able to access them. However, a digital universal public library would potentially open access to all library holdings to anyone with the Internet. The ideal is technologically possible, but legal roadblocks from copyright (which the Library of Congress administers in the United States) have made most library holdings unavailable for online reproduction.
Why is the U.S. government stockpiling books in the Library of Congress, without even attempting to make them available to the public through digitization, when its mission (after providing for the needs of Congress) is to educate and provide resources to the public? Why is Google adding full-text digital books to its databases without immediate compensation, when its primary mission is to make money? The answers are not easy to find, but considering what happened to the world’s former largest library at Alexandria, it is good to have a digital backup. Who has control of these resources is another matter, which is increasingly the mega corporations. And because Google’s primary source of revenue comes from advertisements placed on content on the Internet, ebooks would be an ideal location for product placement and ads, especially when book readers spend much more time with long-form content than with a webpage or short article.
When the largest provider of ebooks to public libraries in the United States, OverDrive, consistently routes library patrons to Amazon.com to retrieve their digital books, and they must have an Amazon account to access this feature, the company that deliberately sets prices for ebooks lower than publishers can sustainably charge is validated. If the patron likes the book and would like to purchase it after taking it out from the library, he or she will return to Amazon. Not only this, but all of Amazon’s products and advertisements appear next to the requested book’s download button. Although it would be nice if library services could remain immune to the commodification and marketing found in most aspects of life these days, it seems likely that the most efficient way to get information in the future will come from corporate providers with profit as their goal.
Before leaving the Library of Congress, we stopped by another exhibit located nearby the bibles, showing old maps of the United States before the states’ borders were fully formed. Pennsylvania stretched straight out past the Ohio River and kind of trailed off to the west without ending. That openness and potential is much like the new frontier of digital technology, one that is just beginning to find its boundaries and organization.
by Mary Le Rouge