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Alexandria burned - securing knowledge access in the age of Google
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by Cynthia M. Gayton 41 Google

"We are all worried about the new librarian.
The man must be worthy, and mature, and wise. …
That is all there is to it."

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco



This article expands upon my previous VINE article entitled 'Legal Issues facing the Knowledge Economy in the 21st Century' by concentrating on one main topic, that of knowledge access specifically to works available currently in analog form. Most libraries face the daunting task of preserving their hard copy collections in a way not contemplated by Johan Gutenberg. How to preserve library collections in a manner permitted under copyright law is the primary legal issue, but the legal analysis does not end there. Contract, licensing, and vendor-driven solutions may leave the ultimate user without access to vital resources heretofore only available within the physical library environment. I will address not only copyright issues and related fair use and first sale doctrines, but antitrust issues, and the relationship between fair use and the 5th amendment. The recently initiated Google Library Project offers a useful test scenario as the debate continues between traditional hardcopy volumes and their digital counterparts. By way of analogy, I will compare the ancient Alexandrian libraries with that proposed by Google.


Perhaps by the time you read this article the dilemma presented here will be resolved. Such is the nature of the Internet. In the event that the dilemma is not resolved, this article will expand upon some ideas discussed in my last article on legal issues in the knowledge-based economy for the 21st century. My focus will be almost entirely on knowledge access. Specifically, I will review the legal issues facing an entity that is attempting to create a library containing the world's books and making that library available for search purposes online.

Initially, I will show that the issues being faced by the above-identified communities are not unique to this century, or even the past thousand years. I have chosen as an analogy the lost libraries of ancient Alexandria in Egypt as the starting point. Next, I will outline contemporary legal issues that face an organization attempting to emulate the intent of the Ptolemies, most of which were not considered by the founders of the original "world library". I will compare the methods used by the knowledge acquirers in the time of the pharaohs with those used by mere mortals. Finally, I will identify the legal hurdles facing a commercial online digital library which will be laws relating to copyright, private property, and antitrust.


Google has an opportunity, although not a duty, to set precedents for the future digital archives of not only an American cultural heritage, but one for the expanse of human history. A good faith effort to cooperate with the authors and publishers whose works populate their digital space by following the laws already forged by public debate should not be ignored in favor of technological expediency and perhaps ephemeral and temporary gain. What is at stake here is not just providing an Internet search service that also happens to link search results with commercial advertisements, but a tool assisting with knowledge accumulation and access for generations."

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