Monday, May 14, 2007

Digitisation Programmes

I have always supported the principles behind digitisation programmes such as Google Book Search - making historic texts freely available online so that they are available to everyone rather than the lucky few with access to deposit and academic libraries seems to me to be a welcome step in democratising culture. I have, however, had some reservations, as the availabilty of digitised texts has provided some libraries with a pretext for a further cull of their bookstacks. Sometimes just on the assumption that everything is available online now.

Organising a pub-reading of English Civil War poems has brought home to me just how often the web doesn't make what I'm looking for available online. This impression was reinforced when I started to search for the text to Andrew Marvell's short poem "The Mower to the Glow-worm" and discovered several books listed on Google Book Search that only included short extracts with links implying that the books hadn't been fully digitised because they were still in copyright and not yet in the public domain. They included 19th century books by the garden writer and friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne Henry Arthur Bright who died in 1884 - clearly now out of copyright. Restricting access to publications which are in the public domain is a worrying development, effectively redefining copyright. Many libraries already charge extortionate "reproduction fees" for illustratations that are in the public domain using their monopoly on supply to increase their income, to the detriment of small publishers - how long before they begin to use their privileged control over the text as another way of increasing their income?