The American Institute of Physics has been awarded a grant of $646,697 from the Sloan Foundation to digitize and make universally available the Wenner collection of 3,800 volumes, dating back nearly five centuries. This is probably not the type of collection that will be used often by laypeople. Perhaps the curious will look at it occasionally, but understanding centuries-old texts in a collection of a physics institute sounds more like something that would appeal to scholars. What this does provide is a look at the progression and maturation of the digitization of books, a process most often associated with Google.
The AIP project, and we now see many like this one, is very different from what Google has undertaken. Google Books was a project to digitize every book on earth, or at least as many as Google could get its hands on. They didn't look to digitize niche libraries such as this, but targeted the entire collections of some of the world's largest libraries. Unfortunately, much of this ran into copyright issues. Anything prior to 1923 is fair game, but after that, it all gets murky, and Google found it difficult to safely digitize later material, even though much of it was long forgotten by the distant heirs who might still have some rights to it.
At this point, Google has digitized over 15 million books. Some are repeats, the same books scanned out of separate libraries, but the number of titles is still enormous. For a while, Microsoft launched a similar program, though they bowed out after a few years, concluding there was no point in trying to create a similar database to what Google was way ahead of them in building. There is also a somewhat more targeted collection of several million books created over the years by the Internet Archive.
Additionally, a very large digital collection is now available from the HathiTrust, though this is mostly derivative of Google. When Google went to university libraries to ask permission to scan their books, they agreed to provide those universities with digital copies of what they scanned from their libraries. Those universities later got together to put their digitized copies in a common collection, now known as the HathiTrust.
While Google's scanning and digitizing continues to go forward today, even if somewhat under the radar, many owners of smaller collections are now digitizing their own books and other documents. Many reach into non-Western countries where Google Books never had much of a presence. These smaller projects, often supported by grants such as that recently given the AIP by the Sloan Foundation, are filling in gaps Google might never have filled. It is taking us closer to the goal of having everything digitized and available to everyone everywhere, at least for books no longer subject to copyrights. Even if this diminishes the importance of the physical book somewhat, it is hard to argue that it is anything but a good thing. It is making knowledge that once was virtually unobtainable, perhaps held only in some library thousands of miles away that let almost no one ever look at their rare books, available to everyone with a few clicks on a mouse. Shining a light on hidden information can only be positive.
AIP CEO Michael Moloney stated, "This collection's historic and cultural value cannot be overstated - this is truly a remarkable fixture in the history of the physical sciences, and we are so thrilled to be partnering with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on this very important work." AIP Director of Development Mariann Salisbury added, "We could not be more honored to be awarded this grant. It will allow us to bring this unique collection into the information age - rare volumes covering centuries of scientific discovery from the very dawn of the scientific revolution available on any computer desktop anywhere in the world."