Is the tantalizing dream of a universal library dead?
Some scholars and librarians across the country fear it may be, now that a federal judge in New York has derailed Google's bold plan to build the world's largest digital library and bookstore. With 15 million books scanned, Google had gotten closer to the elusive goal than anyone else.
"It is quite disappointing because there isn't something better in the wings," said Michael A. Keller, the university librarian at Stanford, one of the first major universities to allow Google to scan its collections.
But others, who were troubled by Google's plan, have hailed the ruling. They see it as an opportunity to bring new urgency to a project to create a universal public library -- one that, they say, would be far superior to Google's because it would not be commercial. The project's ambitious mission, recently described in a four-page memorandum, is to "make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all."
"People feel energized," said Robert Darnton, the director of the Harvard University Library, who recently praised the project in an opinion article in The New York Times. "This is an opportunity for those of us who care about creating a noncommercial public digital library to get on with it."
The lofty effort, the Digital Public Library of America, counts a long list of heavyweights among its supporters, including librarians from major universities and officials from the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Some of the nation's largest philanthropic foundations have said they were interested in financing the project, though its total cost has not been determined.
The various backers of the library, and a number of interested parties, met in October at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which is coordinating the project. Representatives from technology companies like Google and Apple attended.
But the endeavor remains in its infancy. The group has many champions -- Mr. Darnton is the best-known and most vocal -- but it has no formal structure other than a steering committee. It has formed six working groups to study the project's scope, financing, governance, legal hurdles, technical issues and audience.
"Everyone who is at the table has a different idea of audience, scope, content and governance," said David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, who backs the project and attended the October meeting. "All those issues need to be worked through."
Mr. Keller, a member of the committee, said the project "is coming late to the party."
"It is still trying to figure out what it is and who it is," he said. "There is no practical plan for getting it started."
The project is playing catch up not only to Google, but also to Europe, where several countries have proceeded with large digitization projects. The European Commission has backed Europeana, a Web site where users can search for digital copies of 15 million works of art, books, music and video held by the cultural institutions of member countries.
Europeana is serving as something of a model for the noncommercial project in the United States. American institutions like the Library of Congress, public and private universities and nonprofit organizations like the Internet Archive have already scanned millions of books and hundreds of millions of documents. The challenge now is not only to continue and expand various digitization projects, but also to unify them in a single, searchable electronic portal. But unlike in Europe, where national libraries are usually centralized and backed by governments, the United States has a disparate network of independent institutions that have different missions and serve different populations.
"We don't have a central funding source and a central authority," said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, another member of the steering committee. "We have many different kinds of institutions and many different funding streams."
These challenges put in sharp relief the main difference between the digital public library and Google's project: speed.
The idea of scanning every book ever published captivated Larry Page, co-founder of Google, even before he started the company. In 2002, he set out to refute skeptics, who said the idea was unworkable. He set up a makeshift scanning device at Google to see how many books could be scanned in an hour.
The first book he scanned was "The Google Book," an illustrated children's story by V. C. Vickers, according to "In the Plex," a new book about Google by Steven Levy. Eight years later, Google has digitized 15 million books.
The company's original idea was to make books searchable online, but only to show snippets of books protected by copyright. After groups representing authors and publishers sued Google, charging copyright infringement in 2005, Google, and the authors and publishers, saw an opportunity to embark on a far more ambitious project -- a universal digital library and bookstore. Plans for it were laid out in a sweeping settlement that the parties announced in fall 2008.
Under the settlement, every public library in the United States could have offered its patrons free access to the full texts of the entire collection from one computer terminal in their facilities. (Google would have been allowed to sell access to individual books and the entire collection in various ways, sharing proceeds with authors and publishers.)
For those who believed in expanding access to the world's cultural heritage, there was plenty to like.
"You have to give Google a lot of credit," said Doron Weber, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, an early financial backer of the Digital Public Library of America. "Google got everyone's attention."
But the settlement was rejected in federal court last month, in part because it turned copyright law on its head, giving Google the right to profit from a book unless its author or publisher objected. This was a particular problem for "orphan books," out of print titles whose authors and publishers cannot be easily found. Since no one else would be able to obtain a license to those books, Google would have a de facto monopoly on millions of texts.
The digital public library will face the same problem.
"I think the biggest obstacle is copyright," said Pamela Samuelson, a professor of law and information management at the University of California, Berkeley who opposed the settlement and is working on legal issues facing the digital public library.
Backers of the project say they will lobby Congress for legislation that would make it easier to provide access to orphan books. Meanwhile, others are chipping away at the millions of orphans, trying to find rights holders and to determine which books have fallen into the public domain.
Google has vowed to support orphan works legislation. Digital public library backers hope it will help their efforts further, by lending some of its digital archives.
Google appeared cagey about that possibility. "We will continue to stay engaged and try to be supportive," said Daniel Clancy, engineering director at Google.
The digital public library's steering committee hopes to have a working prototype in 18 months. "This is a widely ambitious enterprise and it may well fail," said John Palfrey, a professor at the Harvard Law School who is chairman of the committee. "But it is worth the effort."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .