Wednesday, October 19, 2016
How many books have been digitized?
I am always interested in the disparity between our perception of reality and what is actually happening in the world around us. Genealogists are no exception to this perceptual myopia. Genealogists' main activity is discovering records about their ancestors and relatives. From this, you might expect that they would have an active interest in finding these valuable records. One reality is that these valuable records of our collective past history are in published books. As I have observed in previous writings, from my own observations, very few genealogists are aware of the trove of genealogical books even when they are sitting in a large library.
If some lucky genealogist happens to stumble across a book, such as a surname books written about an ancestor, they then likely become convinced that the book is absolutely true and start adding everything in the book into their family tree, but that is another issue.
One of the main limitations with books has always been finding them. Libraries are a wonderful place to explore the world of books, but you do have to go to the library and spend time looking. Many of us have extensive experience in local, public libraries. Unfortunately, very few of these local institutions have many books that are helpful to genealogical research. If your family happens to be from the area where the library is located, the library may have some extremely valuable items for research but generally, a smaller, local library will have a few of the more "popular" books on genealogy and little else.
Please do not misunderstand me, local libraries usually have specific research opportunities in the form of locally donated books. They may also have other donated or accumulated items of interest including newspaper collections and local memorabilia. But they have limited space and limited book collections.
Larger libraries with huge book collections and vast research opportunities are primarily either in large cities or associated with larger colleges and universities. The fact that they are destination research centers makes their use primarily limited to the serious researcher.
Now we come to the impact of digitization. Now, for all practical purposes, anyone with a connection to the internet can access millions upon millions of books that include overwhelming number of genealogically relevant items. The main challenge with this monumental digitization effort is that the digital books, also called ebooks, are scattered all over the internet in thousands of different websites. Determining whether or not a particular book can be accessed on the internet in digital format can be a daunting research task.
Copyright law in the United States and elsewhere imposes a really strange and daunting limitation on research. I can go into a physical library and look at any book that is available regardless of the copyright status of the book. I do not have to know the copyright status of the book to check it out of the library. But digital books are viewed as a threat to the publishing industry and so copyrighted digital material is highly regulated as you can see anytime you rent a video and have to read the "FBI Warning." So, I can find a particular copyright protected book online and see that there is a digital copy available, but only under some very restricted circumstances can I actually read the digital copy of the book even though I could visit the library and read the physical copy of the book without that same limitation.
This restriction is slowly being eroded by digital libraries such as Overdrive.com, but as yet, these online lending library arrangement contain very, very few books of research interest. Fortunately for genealogists, many of the books we find valuable for research purposes are in the public domain, so these books are more generally available online.
So how many books have now been digitized and where are they? That is the question. It is only through exceptionally diligent online research that anyone can find relevant digital books that are freely available. Some websites even restrict the use of public domain digital material as if they had ownership rights. For example, the Brigham Young University has a huge online collection of digital books numbering in the millions of volumes but access to the collection is limited to students, faculty and some staff members only. The books cannot even be researched on a limited basis by non-students. The irony of this situation is that if the BYU library were part of the HathiTrust.org organization, the public domain portion of their collection would be freely available online to anyone who was interested. What is even more interesting about this situation is that many much smaller and less important university libraries are active participants in the HathiTrust.org organization. See the HathiTrust Partnership Community.
My example of the Brigham Young University Library is just one of many examples of the spotty availability of digital books. One institution may make a given book freely available while the same book is classified in a restricted section of another website.
The question of numbers is really nearly impossible to answer. For example, Google Books has millions of digital books online but does not publish the total number anyplace that is discoverable. Some websites provide a number but the manner in which individual items are counted differs dramatically from website to website so an accurate count is impossible. All I can really say is that there are millions upon millions of books available online and that perhaps a subset of millions of those books have genealogical interest. I can also only say that as genealogists we need to remember to include detailed online book searches in all our general research efforts. The days of relying on local and larger libraries for this material are over. We still need to go to libraries for the yet-to-be-digitized items, but we can access so much online now that we should focus our initial efforts on online sources.