Monday, August 20, 2007

Words for Free

Not so long ago, discussing the controversy over copyright and Google Booksearch, I described my feeling of pleasure when two out-of-print anthologies in which my work featured appeared on Google Booksearch, and my disappointment when they disappeared again (they have since been reinstated). As I stated then, although the actual contents of those books weren't available online I wouldn't have minded if they had been, since I didn't think it likely that many people would otherwise read the few copies available in libraries such as that of the University of Michigan.

Today Peter Finch, Chief Executive of the Welsh Academy, writes to Academy members (of which I'm one) about Welsh Journals Online, a proposal by the National Library of Wales to digitize the entire content of the majority of twentieth-century literary periodicals in Wales.

A member of a nation in which education and literature have always had pride of place, he acknowledges the excitingly democratic nature of library digitization projects:
No need any longer to visit the National Library at Aberystwyth to don white gloves and look at the ancient pages of Brut y Tywysogion. Log on and there are all the pages - viewable entirely for free and with no problem parking your car in order to get to see them. A service for the public has been created that is entirely in keeping with the spirit that founded the public library service
and as a gifted and serious writer himself, he understands my impulse above. Authors on Welsh Journals Online will not be paid and 'will be given the right to say no and not to participate but the reality is that most will want to be included. This will offer some of them an opportunity to see work from years past appear again to re-read and re-evaluate'.

However, he points out this project has been funded:
In a society rich enough to pay for civic flowerbeds to be weeded and town centres to be illuminated 24/7 then authors should get something for what they do. In the whole digitisation process staffers working on the project at the National Library of Wales will be paid. So too the funders and Welsh Assembly Government and JISC. The operators of the internet servers on which the final project is to be stored will also receive financial consideration, as will the owners of the telephone lines down which the information will travel and the manufacturers of the equipment with which users will access it. But the creators of the works being read, the raison d'etre for the whole enterprise, they'll get nothing.
He has a big point there, I reckon. There is something pretty amazing about the ubiquitous idea that, as far as literature is concerned, if there is ever any money going, the last people it should go to are the primary providers. So we do it for the love of it? Should we stop paying doctors or teachers or plumbers if they heal or teach or plumb for the love of it? As Finch says, it's too late to do anything about this project - the money has already been allocated - but in the rush towards digitization this assumption must be challenged.
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