Summary of Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria

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The original purpose of America’s copyright laws wasn’t necessarily to protect the interests of authors but, according to the US Constitution, “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Copyrights protect works until 50 years after the author’s death, at which point books become part of the public domain. Google has done the work to make many of those books available in one giant database, so why can’t you use it? getAbstract recommends this summary to bibliophiles, librarians and people interested in digital technology’s potential to democratize information.

In this summary, you will learn

  • What Google’s first-ever “moonshot” project involved,
  • Why Google digitally scanned 25 million books, and
  • Why no one may ever have access to them.

About the Author

James Somers has written for The Atlantic, Outside Online, MIT Technology Review and Nautilus.



The first project that Google ever described as a “moonshot” wasn’t self-driving cars or bringing the Internet to remote parts of Africa: It was putting books online. In 2002, “Project Ocean” – Google’s plan to digitize all the world’s books – started with seven million volumes from the University of Michigan library. Truckloads of books showed up at Google headquarters, where specially built stations with human page-turners captured them at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. Google went on to scan the books housed at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the New York Public Library, and more. By 2015, the company had digitized 25 million books and spent about $400 million on the project. It was a beautiful vision; so much of the world’s knowledge held in one easily searched, massive universal digital library. The goal was to put special terminals that would give library patrons access to millions of books for free in every local library.

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