Paul Courant and Mary Sue Coleman

Recorded October 27, 2017 Archived October 27, 2017 37:45 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddf000218


Paul (69) and Mary Sue (74) talk about their work at the University of Michigan digitizing the library collection with Google.

Subject Log / Time Code

PC on his first impressions of Michigan: cold weather but very nice people.
PC on the Google Book Project to digitize the library collection.
They talk about how they were able to restore Tulane's historic documents damaged by Katrina.
PC on how the project optimizes research with its digitization.
MSC talks about the vibrancy of the library and how much use its get.


  • Paul Courant
  • Mary Sue Coleman

Recording Location

University of Michigan

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type

Fee for Service


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00:02 My name is Paul Courant. I am 69 years old today's date is October 26th, 2017 when I wear in the library the undergraduate library at the University of Michigan and my relationship to my partner is that we worked together for several years. She was president of the university and I was the Provost of University and we did this work on the project will be talking about today very much together.

00:33 I'm Mary Sue Coleman. I'm 74 years old. And today's date is October 27th 2017. We're in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And Paul Courant is my great colleague from the twelve years that I was president of the University of Michigan.

00:55 So I want to ask you the first question Paul. When did you first arrived at Michigan? And what was your impression of the university and the community first arrived here in the early winter of 1973 must have been January. I was on the job market as an assistant professor in economics and public policy and my first impression was that the streets were paved with ice it was cold. I was living in New Jersey at the time New Jersey isn't exactly bomb me but it's a different different character weather and my impression was very much and it still is after all these years. The people were extraordinary really friendly much more so the New Jersey but something must have kept you here because you had your entire.

01:48 Illustrative academic career here at the University of Michigan. And of course it's so it was always been stimulating and fun to be here.

02:05 Well, when I first met you was when I interviewed to be president really came on campus I guess was when I was in the house. Actually is President and you were the Provost at the time and little did. I realize at the time that you and I are a few years later would embark on a project that certainly I felt would transform the world.

02:30 I remember actually the day that you came and were announced and you had figured out the key to talking to people in Michigan, which is to hold up your hand in the form of a mitten and point to the places that you're talking about or have been I don't know she's going to she's going to be fine here. I was doing a quick study because I've never really been to Michigan before and so it was a new experience for me, but it turned out to be the set of highlight of my life being here is, Michigan.

03:00 So let's talk about the project and actually the I'm very curious cuz I don't remember. I remember how I got started in it, but I don't remember the point at which I brought you into it. You know, I was trying to work all that to I do remember having a conversation with Larry Page Google who is an alarm of the computer engineering program at Michigan and obviously a brilliant young man is the one of the founders of Google and he made some comment about digitizing all the literature in the entire world and I thought a twenty-nine-year-old, you know, and I didn't think it was even possible but then came to tell me about this interest with later and then you and I talked I think after Bill had mentioned to me and I remember I was so skeptical that somebody had to prove

04:00 To me with the number of scanning stations and the number of people that would be employed in the rate of turning the pages to photograph the pages that we could do a million a year, which is what you had to do and which we actually once we went the whole thing got rolling. We hit that Target relatively easily call that do you recall how mind-boggling it was because Michigan had been doing digitization for a long time and we've done some very interesting projects and we want might want to talk in a minute about the making of America, but that was just fascinating to me, but we were doing seven 8000 books a year.

04:44 Do I burn raking the calculation of when we went public a couple of years later with the with the with the project the calculation which was not quite accurate, but close enough that it would take us a thousand years to digitize. Our current election actually would have only taken about 800 but that would have been assumed that we wouldn't buy any more things which of course we would have basically it would have taken forever to digitize the collection and and Larry waltzed in here and said I think I can do it in six years and and actually be pushed on it and we thought we could and I think if we had we didn't quite in the end do the whole project but we did 6 million volumes and we were certainly working at the rate of a man of the year old you remember it wasn't In The Boro building that this was a soul set of nondescript building over by the Michigan Stadium that who would know that they're all they stations in there and people are working.

05:44 4 hours a day turning the pages of books because to digitize you still had to turn the pages you're having nothing happened by Magic Magical process. I had to sign an NDA in order to be able to see it. But I think I'm not breaking any rules at this point. Basically, it was two cameras and an easel and people would turn the pages. Boom Click Boom Click Boom click like that. We actually we started out and if you were building it started out basically there and then Google it was a big enough to take that. I remember our Chief Financial Officer say we are going to be renting the space rather than giving it to Google and Google decide it. Okay, if we're going to have to pay for rent, we're going to move to somewhere house out of 10 slightly out of town, which is what they did but it was a huge operation Google being Google design their own library card at the library card is of course, you know library card is sort of one of the

06:44 Checks at all libraries have and they're all the same don't know Google designed a special library card. They fit perfectly into the trucks that they were using to move the books into the to the scanning station and then move them back and they did it. They actually just like, you know, just like graduation everybody lines up you follow the person in front of you out and then you follow the person in front of you back in so the books with what they give it just a clear a whole set of shelves of books. They fill up the cards. They move the carts in order the book staying in order down to the scanning station. They've scanned them in order and they would then come back the same and nobody had to think very much about where the books were supposed to go is remarkably efficient process and they were doing after once we've really got started thirty thousand a week.

07:36 Don't you remember being so excited about the potential power of the project and the fact that at least I know that you and I talked about it on occasion that we would have the power here to open up information to anybody who had an internet connection around the world and says we've been engaged. I mean even back in the 1940s with helping restore libraries that have been destroyed through war and other countries that for us it was not only it was making it accessible but was also preserving a treasure that might be destroyed you remember Katrina when all those government documents at Tulane or underwater. They were gone and partly actually because of this project it was possible to restore other parts and make available to Tulane letter libraries that have had such such difficulties.

08:36 Replacement copies are forced to pay that they already own and we had this this, you know, the Holy Grail of this thing that utopian dream was that all these Works would be digitized and available on the web to anybody who wanted to read them. We haven't quite we have the books now, they're on the web but they're only available under fairly under consistent with copyright rules. And so it'd be nice to to be able to get to the point where anybody could look at any one of them from anywhere. At least we have them all. So they're safe and the ones that are in the public domain was about two and a half million of our works and then other ones around the world as well are absolutely open and and get red and used for research and for also research about the linguistic content of the words everyday, really really a transformative and I think from the very first moment.

09:36 Knew that if we if our library where digitized it would be could be used in a completely different way only additive right everything in it gets better if you have it in this form. Absolutely and I think one thing that sometimes people forget is it many the volume that we have are printed on acid paper. They're going to deteriorate over time and soap. We do have this obligation to preserve the knowledge is well and we thought well, we'll have a Master Copy when things do get destroyed in ultimately all the copyrighted Works will go out of copyright may be a long time, but they will and if we have them they can be used in that way. You know, I'm going to go back a little bit because I was so intrigued by the story that came out of a digitizing project before Google the making of America that the library here at Michigan had donned from 1850. I think to 1870 somewhere.

10:36 That. When there was so much going on in the country and the story about the beekeeping book. Do you want to tell the story about the bookkeeping book?

10:48 Blows me away every time I think about it. So back in 1860. There was a book published about the art of beekeeping and it was in this collection from Corpus from 1850 to 1870. And we just had this feeling the library instead of feeling that if those books were digitized and made available out on the internet that nothing's and copyright from that was so they could be out anywhere that that that would be something valuable and we further agreed to if somebody wanted a copy that we would download and print it cuz we had the capacity to print and bind books in the library or the art of because keeping has become hundreds and hundreds of people have requested that book and before that. Nobody knew that it existed. In fact in that whole archive. I think they're getting millions of hits a year on those volumes because now people know about them, so we are

11:48 Making available to the world books that aren't Brittany Moore and in fact most books that have been publishing pass or not in friends almost almost all books are not in print and some of them are lost her in bad condition. The beekeeping book is the best seller and I'm told by people who know something about beekeeping that actually what they knew in 1860 whatever is still what you need to know and so the book continues to be the to be a valuable one back a little bit to that the story the very beginning is I understand it. I think Larry Larry Page was visiting here he was as you point out young and and he was give me a pocket engineering college and you're in college of course viewed him as a potential donor down the road. This is this is important to remember Google in 2002.

12:48 First set of conversations happen was just a just a medium small mom-and-pop. Monopoly was Larry and Sergey and a few of their friends. They were doing about 2 billion dollars worth of business a year today is in the 60s right billions of dollars a business Google today is much more much larger more more. I worked out Enterprise, but Larry was here and he was giving this truck and then he asked the dean of the engineering College who was hopeful about some kind of gift for a pledge. Could I see the university librarian please the right answer but but a distinguished alumnus is in town to whatever question he or she may ask is sure. So so Larry and Bill talked and and floated the project then sometime later bill came to me and said we're very interested in doing this. What do you think? Am I my first reaction kind of think it's fabulous as long as it's up high enough quality that we can use the scans.

13:48 Your Google is it was actually very skilled and the methods they worked out where indeed sufficient and then we spent there was a long. Of quiet. Yeah, really two years between when we when we agreed that this was a good idea and we sign the the first Cooperative agreement and I remember having many conversations with the general counsel at the University about this but also with the Board of Regents the governing board about, you know, we didn't want to put the university in a position that it was going to be somehow liable. And so this was a very much a part of the conversation at the end of the day, we worked out an agreement so that we had indemnification from Google and so we actually didn't get sued by the Association of American Publishers, but Google dad and

14:48 And I think unfortunately, I think those all that litigation and all those lawsuits cause of them a number of years later to settle back down from the project what we did then was to engage with forming the pot a trust and you might want to talk about that a little bit because I think that's a resource that people still have it's really a very we were sued there too. But we wanted every stage because of the fair use Doctrine. So how do you trust is a digital Cooperative Digital Library the partners are more than a hundred libraries around the world. The founding Partners were the University of Michigan and Indiana University. When is Google digitization Project was going on the original idea that Google had was they would keep copies of all the scans and if we wanted to look at them.

15:41 We send them an email saying that we basically look research their records and we from the very beginning said no. No, that's great. We want our own copy. Where are an independent Public University. We have different values and interest. We went our own copy want to be able to use it to allow people with with Prentice abilities to read we want to use it for the preservation purpose. So where you can you get a copy of your SLI? And and that's fine. We get a copy to them. So we started spending it started to get expensive. We had half a million and then I met you in a minute. Actually. We're going to have eight million volumes and we were going to have to store them reliably and in ways that we could search them in and and retrieve them and so forth and so we started to build that infrastructure and Anna Curtis and putting very much I should name Jon Wilkin who is now the university librarian at Illinois. And who was Dan the the

16:41 Digital Library Guru of of our library and business associate director of the library, but we so we we were digitizing the Google was digitizing. We were keeping a copy and then we realized that other libraries were also working with Google other libraries were also digitizing for various reasons. And if we all got together and worked on the same infrastructure, we can have a higher quality more reliable and secure version. If each did it alone we they'd be okay but not nearly as good. So we use this collection largely scanned by Google to start and continues to be very large. We're now well over 10 million volumes and Behati trust to start this Cooperative digital library, and and from the very beginning we had put into the original memorandum of agreement.

17:41 Cooperative operating agreement with Google that we were going to be allowed to use the works in consortial ways in the academic sector and I think that made all the difference because we we the academy not just Michigan at all but a hundred universities and more have this great Digital Library that is now, you know, moving up towards being almost everything held in this set of libraries published before the end of the twentieth century. Absolutely and then those works are some of them are in copyright still and the ones that are in copyrights till we follow all the rules and we just provide Snippets of information that you we know, we're not we're not making it possible for you to read copyright books online. If you're in it just anybody. I mean you have to have special permission to come in as a researcher and use them. So we've been very careful about that, but the the really the value

18:41 Here is always works that are copyright that are available to anybody with an internet connection. And even the ones that are in copyright. If you go and search you can find out whether a word or phrase or name is in the book. It'll come back in the innervation face and tell you yep page 23 answers Mary Sue Coleman. And so then you know that it's worth taking the truck to the library to look at that butt cuz it's got the thing that you want in it the other way in which the text can be used his if you want to know when the word gay changed its meaning you can do searches on all of the uses in the collection of that word in the words of Education to them overtime. So you have a just picking one example there but you have you have a computation Ali usable record, but essentially all the published words

19:41 From this. It must have heard wrong kind of research Paul that without this you cannot do you because you first of all you can't get access to the physical copies of the books. You couldn't possibly read them. So this is just another level of human endeavor and scholarship that I think it's been extraordinarily valuable and and and really that's what was transformed about it. And you know, I'm I'm disappointed that the litigation caused Google to back off. I'm very happy with the hottie trust because I think that's been extraordinary important and I'm proud I am so proud that we did it it really is and we involve many other universities but but I have to say in those early stages everybody but us was cautious or lawyer put in for a well. You don't expect

20:41 Not necessarily be so enthusiastic. He said you said we were Intrepid I think that's a very good description of the plate and done things that others are hesitant to do and you know, I had written about this story that Michigan has believed in the power of books forever the first gift to the University of Michigan with a German encyclopedia that was brought to the university by a fur-trader from Wisconsin shortly after the founding of University in 1817, and we still have it that you can go read it in the special collections.

21:32 So what you mentioned that we worried about litigation we were careful about the and eventually of course we did get sued. We got sued by the authors Guild and the suit basically said that the copying everything asserted that the copying itself was a violation of copyright law.

22:01 My recollection is that we did not expect that suit that we were somewhat surprised by there was some other ones I expected but what's your recollection? You know, we were helpful. I think that because we thought we believe so much in the project and we believed that we could borrow all the rules and that we were not going to do something that would hurt authors or Publishers that and I felt like our argument persuasive. So when when they did decide to sue us with you, I was very I was a bit shocked because I thought don't you see this don't you see that? What we're doing is we are exposing your work to the world and you will benefit and I just couldn't get my mind around how they would feel threatened.

22:54 So I have to say here speaking as a former University library and then I was an academic author almost all of the books and University libraries have very little street value their technical there published for a particular academic audience. They have print runs back in the old days of 500. 5000 nowadays even often often smaller than that and and they're mostly written by people by Scholars who want their work to be cited in used. So what what you just said about we're not doing anybody any harm hear what we're trying to do is get get the word out and get it more usable is exactly the way that we thought of it. I believe the way most academic authors think about it and I'm still hopeful that down the road we will be able to make agreements with Publishers and and authors and maybe some changes in the law around around how to handle Works where it's at.

23:54 Clear who the right shoulder is so called orphan works. This isn't over yet. And cuz we have all these scans. They're all extremely diet. But you know, they're all useful if we could use the more that would be better you made that pitch to a meeting of the American Association of University or just called the warm up to it. You were putting your head in the Lion's Den let you know a first of all I think they were very surprised that I agreed to come and talk and I think they were loaded for bear when I got there. They were just going to beat me up about it. And I think I've persuaded them that we were

24:37 Doing the right thing. It was a it was a very interesting. I didn't I didn't get many questions after the speech but you know, I at Harkins back to the history of doing this and why books are so important and why what our goals were and what we were trying to do so it was it was it was interesting that experience for me I have to say but I think in the end of the day the University of Michigan came off, okay that we were not the bad guys here probably in the beginning to get a different outcome or do you think it was just the that the forces arrayed against us were such that it we could not have made a different outcome. So I think all the way up through

25:32 All the way up through to the orphan Works project that we tried to implement and that was quite late in the whole in the whole business. Most of the digitization have been done by then. I don't think I would have changed a thing. Larry comes in and says we're going to make your collection digital unreadable. We negotiate back with him that we'll have our own copy and be able to share with other Scholars around the world. That's pretty good. We cross indemnify so that we are not responsible legally for any of their uses. They're not responsible legally for any of ours and we have some protection as a public institution and there's a library the Google doesn't have is a is a for-profit private sector Corporation. So if that was all good the work was piling up on me when we were pouring out gas cans at a great rate and enlisting the other academic libraries of the world to join with it. That was all very good.

26:28 Google got sued not us in the first instance by both the authors and Publishers and we weren't happy about that. But I actually wasn't surprised Google so much better Target to sue than we are there not a public library could have any public libraries everybody like the library and all the way up through there. I really think we I think we made the Right Moves. We then got into you know, there was a very complicated settlement of the of the lawsuit right which would have led to Google actually basically turning the whole collection into an online bookstore and we worked hard with them to try to make that work. It was at that point that things began to become unglued lots of academic authors were quite so sure they wanted this to happen. There was a lot of concern that Google would have a monopoly or a scholarly literature my own

27:28 View again as a as if someone in the scholarly literature business for a long time is the Monopoly over something, you know that people don't pay very much for him. But still there was a lot of concern there in a sense that maybe Google head over reached and but we just got carried along with that that wasn't actually going to be a problem for us. Then we did something that I thought was brilliant, but got us in the end into some trouble which was one of the problems as you know, in in in copyright is so called orphan Works some book that was written in 1934 published by a publisher whose no longer in business author whose long since dead didn't sell very well in the first place sitting in our library. We scan it if we want the right to be able to make that copy available to be read. We just don't know who to ask and there are millions of works.

28:28 Across the landscape that are like this so we had this brilliant idea to bring an idea was take a look for books that are possible candidates for not having an order that we can find list them and post the list publicly very publicly and say anybody who who can I who thinks they own this book, please tell us and we'll both will talk with you will be happy happy to do that. But but if we can't find anybody it's a book that we bought a house. So we don't we only copy we have a copy in the library were absolutely allowed to lend a copy to people we can make a photocopy of it. If for an individual student or faculty members use Etc. So we want to do is take our digital copy and make it available to exactly the same people who get library cards at the University of Michigan. So basically members of our student body faculty and staff.

29:28 We thought I still think that was going to hurt nobody already here. We already paid for them. We have certain rights to be able to reuse them. The authors Guild was killed was freaked out that we would without explicit permission allow a book in our collection to be read online if it might be in copyright and they shoot us over there and we won that lawsuit we wanted big It's actually an important lawsuit and copyright. If it was open it made more powerful the idea of of of fair use that the things the University was doing search preservation books for the the disabled were indeed fair use under under copyright law, but we could have run that project a little tighter and maybe we wouldn't get sued. I don't know. I don't know the right place. We were transformed we've made secure.

30:28 The great University collections of the 20th century like to make a more readable more easy to read but that they are secure and can be used at least for some purposes is an extraordinary accomplishments. It is an extraordinary accomplishment. And I think this brings me to the thought do we have a great research Library here? What do you think? Our library is going to be like in 50 years? I mean are we we still going to have books on the shelves? Is this going to be a place where people walking around the library today? Because I was just doing that and I was so distraught but how many people are in the library? They're sitting at the carols. They are socializing. We have a coffee bar down in the first for it and it is just it seems to be a place that sell vibrant and and whatever people are at computer screens to of course, how do you think about that Papa? Cuz you during your loss.

31:28 Turn your Michigan you had a stamp for you at the library. So, you know a lot about it. Yes, I think that the the book collections in the library 50 years from now will be compared to the way they are now relatively small. It'll be the special collections to books that have a special value as artifacts that that require special attention, but also books many kind because it's extremely it will still be extremely important for students to understand the the long. In which the book was the the dominant kind of document for scholarship. I think that we will continue to have Library engine expertise. So one of the things that the digital world makes possible also causes problems, they'll be a collection of some say some papyrus in

32:28 University in Italy and somebody here wants to be able to use that collection. But how are they going to find out what the details of the collection are not everything carries with it ideal date of the kind that you would want. Well actually want to have a librarian who knows a lot about papyrology. Oh, we have one of those and so when you want to search and you use works that are far away and Fields of disks, Justin expertise The Librarians here now have to be responsible able to deliver information about collections there elsewhere as well as collection is here and I think that function of being able to work through the relevant academic literature and the relevant cultural literature is one that will continue to be performed and you don't have to call him library in the buildings at the center of the campus where the books used to be by people who look a lot like the Librarians which is to say people who

33:28 I know very well but content of the various relevant collections around the world sounds like that. You absolutely believe that a discipline of Library science. I mean just the the the management of libraries of preservation of collections because we do have many fragile items in the library, but this will continue regardless of the degree to which we all become digital and online and have access and a handful of the great libraries in the world in Michigan to one of them are going to want to have those original copies securely play some place in a very very good climate that preserves paper for a long time because in the end, sometimes you're going to want to go back and check the original sometimes when you go back and check the original you discover that that semicolon was really a, and it makes a difference.

34:28 Original work. Sometimes that isn't so easy or you know, there may be notations and books of certain it hadn't been digitized when they were being annotated or whatever. I mean, I mean overtime and so I think we need to be cognizant about the library before the function has more and more and Central meeting places places for group projects by supposed to have expensive Hardware of various kinds and again good good expertise on how to use works that are both traditional Library works, but also quite different 3D printers. For example library is a good place to have your 3D printer and you're not in the Twilight of your career because you're still really active Paul, but the roads are not so far away. Tell me a little bit about if you reflect back.

35:28 All those years and what you've seen we talked a little bit about Michigan and how Intrepid it is. Give me your since about it show it the hundredth anniversary that were celebrating anniversary. And and I think that that the

35:46 The University's commitment simultaneously to public mission that we we want people to use our facilities we a we treat this library is a public library people are allowed to come in off the street and read books in the library and and and go to the computer Terminals and such a public mission that absolutely true to the ideals of scholarship. So we we we serve these two these two quite we serve the population as a whole and we also have our own faculty and students and our job is to make it easy for them to learn and teach and then easy for that learning and teaching to go out there into the rest of the world and the attitude here and throughout my career. I would say anytime I have wanted something from the administration. They have been able to deliver what it was I needed to do my work.

36:46 Working as I moved into Administration, I thought well that's actually a very good goal for me to have right. So so I should we should be making this place one in which students faculty staff the broader public the broader world can do their work. Well because we're able to provide the expertise and resources to make that happen. I think that's a fairy been a very strong commitment of this spice ever since I've been here that the right answer to a well posed question is yes, we can do that. We're Michigan course we can do that. I think that's the Hallmark of a great great University and I think you've just described something that we should all feel proud about as we celebrate the 200th anniversary. I think we've lived up to our potential though. We all have a long way to go.