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Would Thomas Jefferson have Googled?

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman evokes Jefferson while discussing her school's part in Google's book-scanning project.

Google's Book Library Project would be applauded by at least one of America's founding fathers, the University of Michigan's president said Monday during her keynote at a national publishers meeting.

"Thomas Jefferson would have loved Google Book Search. He believed in contemplating every possible idea. He advocated the diffusion of knowledge and the power of universities to make that happen," Mary Sue Coleman told attendees of the annual conference of the Professional/Scholarly Publishing division of the Association of American Publishers. The conference takes place this week in Washington, D.C.

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Video: Digitizing the library
University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman tells the Association of American Publishers why her university is a partner with Google Print Library Project.

Jefferson, the third president of the United States, resurrected the Library of Congress after British troops destroyed it in the War of 1812 and sold his own personal library to the government at bargain prices, she said.

"As a country, we are at risk of losing millions and millions of items that constitute our heritage and our culture, because of a lack of conservation and planning. And libraries fare the worst when it comes to dedicating resources to preservation work. So conservation efforts are paramount," she said.

The University of Michigan is one of five institutions, besides Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and the New York Public Library, that are offering up their collection to be scanned, digitized and made searchable by Google.

"This project is about the social good of promoting and sharing knowledge. As a university, we have no other choice but to do this project," Coleman said.

Others disagree. The plan has prompted lawsuits and sparked national debate, with critics arguing that scanning copyright protected books infringes on the rights of copyright owners. Google says it will display only snippets of those books.

Yahoo and the Internet Archive have launched a competing effort, dubbed the Open Content Alliance, which will only scan and digitize books in the public domain. Microsoft later joined that effort, while and Random House announced their own plans.

The University of Michigan's participation in the Google project began after a discussion with Google co-founder Larry Page, a graduate of the school's computer engineering program, four years ago in which he said he wanted to digitize the university library, Coleman said.

"We were digitizing books long before Google knocked on our door, and we will continue our preservation efforts long after our contract with Google ends," she said. "Google Book Search complements our work. It amplifies our efforts, and reduces our costs. It does not replace books, but instead expands their presence in the marketplace."

The university will protect in-copyright books until the copyright expires, she said.

"Merely because our library possesses a digital copy of a work does not mean we are entitled to, nor will we, ignore the law and distribute it to people to use in ways not authorized by copyright," she said.

"Believe me, students will not be reading digital copies of 'Harry Potter' in their dorm rooms."