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This week, I learned about a newly accessible treasure trove of history and literature online. Once again, my excitement was tempered by the reality that it's only available through paying libraries. While I'm a big fan of libraries and even remote access for patrons, it's troubling that the public-at-large cannot access these holdings -- or quickly discover them through commonly used search engines.

Publishers Gale and ProQuest announced their electronic bridge which connects some of the most treasured English language resources. According to these publishers, who are the Coke and Pepsi of academic resources, researchers will find “digital collections of nearly every printed work from the late 15th through the 18th centuries, [which] are considered to be among the world's most valued research collections.” This includes nearly everything printed in England between 1700-1800, and over 220,000 books and works.

At least the lucky library card holders at 200+ universities will be able to search and read these seminal collections more easily, beginning next year. The rest of us get zilch. Now I can understand the economics, as it costs a lot to collect, curate, digitize and share these tremendous holdings and the libraries pay for all this to be done. Unlike commercial content, there won't be advertisers lining up to sell their Christmas gifts next to texts from the Age of Reason.

Both Gale and ProQuest are trying to make strides towards more open access, by helping librarians deliver extensive catalogs, an array of digitized content, and 24/7 access for patrons. Last month, the ProQuest executives even mentioned that they want to help librarians in “building products from the end user point of view.” Gale has offered gateways for the public to research what's available at their local libraries. All this is to be applauded.

Yet the “long tail” information we really deserve is still largely unsearchable outside library gates. Try as they might, the search engines aren't solving this problem, because there's nothing to crawl or license here. There needs to be a better way to find the world's knowledge…anyone?


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