Is The Virtual Library Doomed?

All Knowledge in One Place

The desire to catalogue, reference, and house society’s vast collective of knowledge dates back to as early as the third millennium B.C. From ancient scrolls confiscated, copied and kept in the collections of the Library of Alexandria (300 B.C.) to today’s ongoing quest to make virtual, searchable online records of every document in print through projects such as Carnegie Mellon University’s Million Book Project or Google Library Search, cultures who depend on the written word continue to place the utmost importance on being able to access the totality. (Grafton, 2007.) The idea of being readily able to access all knowledge through what has become known as the virtual library is far from new; digitalization has heightened the desire and excitement by introducing the promise of near instantaneous results. (O’Donnell, 2007.)

The Caveat of Copyright

One issue that has caused a lot of upheaval in the development of a complete searchable online library is the subject of copyright. In December 2004, Google announced its plan to scan the works of five major libraries in an effort to digitize them, thus making them searchable. Not overlooking copyright rules completely, Google did create different types of display for different types of books: out of copyright books would be displayed in full, in-print books would be shown in increments to be determined by the copyright holder through negotiation, and “orphaned books” (those whose copyright could not be determined) would be displayed in only small excerpts unless the copyright holder came forward to claim and further negotiate terms. (Kelly, 2006.) Attorneys for Google claimed that the ways in which the search giant were choosing to display each type of book fell under the “fair use” clause within copyright law, which allows for reproduction of limited copyrighted material without permission

Lead Astray by Litigation

In 2005, The Author’s Guild filed a claims case against Google in the name of all authors who have had their works scanned into the searchable database. Though Google has maintained the legal stance that their display practices fall under the principle of “fair use” they did reach a proposed settlement agreement with authors and publishers for 125 million dollars, allowing them the right to display excerpts of in-copyright books and provide full online access through individual purchases or subscriptions. The settlement was ultimately rejected in March of 2011 by Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York who went on to explain that it was neither fair nor reasonable as it would be giving Google the rights to full books without explicit permission from copyright owners. (Shah, 2012)

The Author’s Guild is presently continuing their fight, now proposing statutory damages compensation paid directly to authors in the sum 750 dollars per book scanned without permission by Google. Judge Denny Chin, who had rejected the first attempt at settlement, has agreed to hear the case under a case action lawsuit as the idea of individual authors bringing their cases in against such a large project would be unjust. In Google’s defense, their brief argues that the service provides “enormous transformative benefit” to the public without “reducing the value” of any authors’ work, placing their effort into the category of fair use. Their brief goes on to claim, “Google Books is an important advance on the card-catalogue method of finding books.” (Flood, 2012.)

Which Way Does The Scale Tip?

This case is another reason why copyright law needs to be re-examined. Yes, displaying a copyrighted work in its entirety online could easily lead to an author’s financial ruin. Book sales would undoubtedly plummet as eager readerships easily posted links at the click of a mouse. However, displaying excerpts of a published work leads to question whether or not benefit could come from such a practice. Small snippets could actually serve to generate interest in a book, giving potential readers an “I have to find out what comes next,” feeling, opening up an author/publisher to an increased readership and increased profits. On the other hand, having an entire work scanned and residing in a database that could potentially be unlocked, hacked or accidentally made available would lead back to widespread, viral delivery of a work, making sale, and profit, obsolete. Though the present lawsuit is being presented as a class action, authors should be able to determine whether or not it is ultimately worth the risk.

Another consideration is the virtual library itself. If the goal is to make literature more accessible on a global scale, consideration needs to be made as to the provisions needed to access the digital collections. Will those in developing nations have the tools necessary to search, retrieve and read the information being catalogued and indexed? Will the information itself be relevant to them? More research needs to be done on the bridging of the digital divide before these questions will be able to be effectively addressed.

Have we evolved from the original goal of the Mesopotamians to collective house all knowledge, or are we just trying to achieve it on a more technologically advanced scale? What is the actual point of the virtual library?


Flood, A. (2012, Aug 7). US authors seek damages in Google Books copyright row. The Guardian. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2012 from

Grafton, A. (2007, Nov 5). Future reading: Digitation and its discontents. The New Yorker. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2012 from

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan this book! The New York Times. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2012, from

O’Donnell, J.J. The virtual library: An idea whose time has passed. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2012 from

Shah, A. (2012, May 3). Authors contend Google’s book-scanning project hurting millions. PC World. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2012, from

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1 Response to Is The Virtual Library Doomed?

  1. Danielle Dubien says:

    Fascinating! The point about showing people snippets of a book to give them a thirst for more reminds me of the time when Chapters had comfortable chairs and sofas where people could sit and read for a while. This practice may have encouraged people to read entire books or magazines for free and even make the store so packed that potential customers stayed out. However, those chairs helped to create a friendly ambiance and drew me in and I bought one or two books every time. Once the chairs were removed, my visits to the store, and consequently, my purchases, declined significantly.

    Another point: libraries carry a lot of recently published books and released CDs, yet they don’t seem to pose much of a threat to sales. Also, sites like Amazon and AbeBooks sell used books at a profit for themselves. I wonder whether the author gets any of that profit, and how much their income is affected by this practice.

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