Google founder Sergey Brin takes to the pages of the New York Times today to explain the value of Google Books:
But the vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries. Books written after 1923 quickly disappear into a literary black hole. With rare exceptions, one can buy them only for the small number of years they are in print. After that, they are found only in a vanishing number of libraries and used book stores. As the years pass, contracts get lost and forgotten, authors and publishers disappear, the rights holders become impossible to track down.
Inevitably, the few remaining copies of the books are left to deteriorate slowly or are lost to fires, floods and other disasters. While I was at Stanford in 1998, floods damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of books. Unfortunately, such events are not uncommon — a similar flood happened at Stanford just 20 years prior. You could read about it in The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report, published in 1980, but this book itself is no longer available.
As an author, I’m completely supportive of Google Books, and I agree with Brin in that I wish there were many such services. Recently an out of print, foreign album I had been searching for in any format for years became available via Amazon MP3. In one day, this band’s music went from being completely inaccessible to being available to essentially everyone with an Internet connection. Google Books’ arrangement is slightly different, but the concept is the same. Most people create things in order to reach an audience, and Google Books gives authors of out of print works an opportunity that simply does not currently exist. It’s unlikely that a better opportunity is worth holding out for.