Without Microsoft, British Library keeps on digitizing

The British Library's ongoing projects to make thousands of books available digitally won't slow down despite the end of a deal with Microsoft

The British Library's ongoing projects to make thousands of books and other resources available digitally won't slow down significantly, despite the ending last week of a partnership with Microsoft, a senior library official said Friday.

Microsoft formed a partnership with the library in November 2005 to fund the scanning of up to 100,000 out-of-copyright 19th century books, or around 20 million pages. The scanning work will continue for a while longer until the last 40,000 books are finished, said Neil Fitzgerald, digitization project manager.

The library has 15 ongoing digitization projects, focusing on other holdings such as sound recordings and newspaper pages. Funding come from a mix of private and public sources. Those projects will continue, Fitzgerald said.

"There can be a tendency to look at possibly negative aspects, but I think it's worth emphasizing this has been a positive outcome for the library," Fitzgerald said.

The library would be open to partnerships with other companies, including Google, that express an interest in digitization projects, he said. Microsoft's departure wasn't entirely unexpected.

"This isn't a new situation for the library," Fitzgerald said. "We have lots of experience in this area, and we are pragmatic and realistic. Commercial third parties will only maintain a resource if it fulfills their commercial imperative."

Microsoft said last week it would focus its search engine development on projects with "high commercial intent, such as travel." The company shut down a portal, called Live Book Search, that allowed users to search books from the British Library and other sources. Those books are now searchable through Microsoft's main search engine, Live Search.

The British Library holds about 150 million items, of which 13 million are books, Fitzgerald said. Scanning 100,000 books would represent about 0.5 percent of the library's holdings, he said. The library can only scan books for which the copyright has lapsed, yet which are still in a fit state, around 2.5 million items in all.

The books are scanned by automated machines that turn the pages. The APT BookScan 2400, made by Kirtas, uses a robotic arm to turn pages, of which 2,400 can be scanned per hour. Fitzgerald said contractors operate the machines from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. in two shifts, scanning some 75,000 pages per day.

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
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