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The Electric Librarian



The terms "trade secret technology" and "undisclosed location" bring to mind images of the CIA or FBI. But the Google Book Search?

Perhaps the most ambitious cataloging projects of all time, the team that makes up Google Book Search is on a mission to scan every book ever published. Since the project began at the library of the University of Michigan in 2002, well more than 1 million books have been digitally scanned into the Google Book Search engine.

"High-volume digitization on this scale has never been done before," says Richmonder Ben Bunnell, the manager of the Google Book Search Library Partnership. "We had to develop our own technology and hardware. Now we have the procedure down." The technology that Google developed to scan the books is, like everything else the company does, top-secret, and the locations of the digitalization facilities all over the world are undisclosed. "The libraries understand how it works and they, too, are sworn to secrecy," Bunnell says.

From the beginning, Google Book Search ( has met its share of opposition. There has been clamor from book preservationists, copyright lawyers and even a professor from France who claimed that Google was trying to promote an Anglo-Saxon agenda. But Bunnell's team has uploaded books in more than 430 languages, and the Google interface has been translated into dozens of different languages. Strict copyright policies and an agreement with publishers regulate how much of a book not under public domain (published after 1923) can be shown.

"I went to library school because I liked the idea of helping people find what they're looking for," Bunnell says. "But now I'm part of something much larger that will have an enormous impact."

A native of Lynchburg, Bunnell graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1993 before earning a master's of library science and an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. Google Ad Words hired him in 2002, and Bunnell joined the Book Search project in 2004. He is now the Google liaison for libraries at the University of Virginia, Columbia University, Oxford University, the Complutense University of Madrid, The National Library of Barcelona and elsewhere.

"Honestly, what drives me every day is the larger goal," he says. "As a research tool, this is transformative. Anybody anywhere can have access to all of the world's knowledge. It will rebalance the playing field regarding content in books and content on the Web."

Since June 2007, more than 100,000 books from the U.Va. library -- specifically the Tibetan Buddhism, African-American and American South collections — have been shipped out for digitization, scanned and returned. There have been no complaints from students or faculty. "They're returned so fast, we never know they're gone," says Karin Wittenborg, a U.Va. librarian. "We're happy to be part of the project because it's a way of democratizing information. We bring old books to new audiences."

Does Wittenborg fear that her job's at stake? Quite the opposite, she says: "Librarians are more necessary than ever because we have a rapidly expanding wealth of information. It's the most exciting time to be a librarian, because we can provide more access to more information, anytime, anywhere. It's not so important how many books you own, but whether or not you can help people navigate the world of information and find the books they need." S

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