But Google is not digitizing these books so it can sell copies of them. They are out of print for a reason. There is no market for them as whole books. Their value lies in cutting them up into snippets and relevant excerpts, and showing those snippets along with search ads to people looking for related information. The reason they are valuable to Google is because they are a rich source of high quality information that will improve its search results, and in fact give them an information advantage over other search engines without equal access to the world’s books.
Exactly. I have mixed feelings about this, because I can see the great value — to me, as a scholar and writer — of more easily finding “snippets and relevant excerpts.” That’s the kind of thing Google already does very well, so much so that we will soon have whole generations of researchers, academics, and other intellectuals who don't even remember the needle-in-a-haystack experience that looking for data used to be.
Of course, it should also be noted that some kinds of research — like the kind that Keith Thomas did for his new book The Ends of Life — is unlikely to be digitized anytime soon. Maybe never. And one wonders whether in a scanned-and-digitized world the immense patience that Thomas has exhibited will become ever rarer than it is now.