Things haven’t gotten any less hectic, but something happened last week that prompted me to find some time to get back to this blog. So, I’ll skip the draft that’s been languishing here for over a month (it can wait a little longer), stop complaining that I don’t have much time to blog and just describe something that’s fresh in my mind and that I’d like to document here for future reference. Perhaps there’s nothing to it, but then again, perhaps there is.
Last Wednesday, I was working on a little experiment for which I needed an online book. Since I like experimenting with things I find interesting, and since I had discovered a few months ago that “Le vingtième siècle” by Albert Robida was available online, I decided that it would be perfect for my experiment.
I had forgotten that the full version of the book was not available online in English and initially tried to search for it in Google Books. My failure resulted in a series of Tweets, as I was first outraged to find that the book had “been removed” and then gradually realized that in fact, it had never been available on Google Books, but rather was available at the French Digital Library website Gallica:
After having found the book, I proceeded to a few experiments using the embedded reader provided by Gallica but was not able to finish before going to bed. The following day I accessed the book a few times in the embedded reader and was therefore surprised when that evening I tried to access it again from Gallica and received a message that it was not available because of copyright restrictions.
Of course I tweeted that too:
Now in case you don’t know this book, it was one of the first science fiction works that presented a vision of modern life as it might evolve due to technological advances over 50 years in the future. It was written in 1883, so it should not be subject to copyright, and indeed when I initially accessed it, the notice clearly stated the work was available for personal use (which was my case).
Curiously, when “Le vingtième siècle” became inaccessible on Gallica, I noticed that in fact it seemed to be the only book by Albert Robida that I was not able to access. All of the others were available.
Finally, the following evening, I decided to check again to see if by chance access had been restored, and lo and behold! the book was available again:
As far as I can tell, it is still available at the time of this writing, although I am no longer using this work in my experiments, so I am not accessing it at all through the embedded player.
Now, I realize that my experience with one 19th century French language book is not likely to generate a lot of interest, but I find this all very strange. Why all of a sudden would access be revoked? If this was a coïncidence, it was certainly a very strange one. Was someone monitoring my tweets? Did my repeated access through the embedded player trigger some kind of alert at Gallica? Did someone want to make sure that no violation of the usage rules had occurred? I find that worrisome since Gallica provides the embed code I used, and I presume they wouldn’t provide one if they didn’t expect anyone to use it.
So all this is somewhat of a mystery. However, I also take it as some kind of warning. Having access to library resources from all over the world in their original language is truly something wonderful and precious that the Internet allows. However, this access is only possible as long as the holding institutions agree to make their collections available, and this example suggests that mechanisms may be in place to shut down that access for unknown reasons. I can only hope that those reasons are valid ones and that access won’t be revoked in the future because someone wants to make money selling new copies of works that should be in the public domain or because someone wants to limit access for ideological or political reasons.
Who knows? It bears keeping in mind that knowledge to which we have access today may not be available to us tomorrow. So take advantage of it! For now at least, no one can revoke access once it’s in your head.
Update Nov. 5th, 2010: Over at Mike Cane’s Xblog, Mike has just described a different but related experience with Google Books’ Robo-Block. His words there ring true to me: “All of you waiting for Google Editions, this is a taste of the disaster to come.”
More to come on this subject.