Google and Microsoft both have programs to scan books and place them online. But according to the NY Times several research libraries have turned down offers from these companies in favor of the non-profit Open Content Alliance.
The OCA is part of the Internet Archives and was founded by that organization and Yahoo! in 2005. It costs OCA about $30 to scan a book, so this commitment to openness isn't cheap--Google and Microsoft will foot the bill if libraries accept their offer. Even so, the list of OCA contributors is impressive.
When a library accepts Google's offer, they also accept some limitations--notably that the scanned material won't be made available to other search services. The end result of this effort would be a Balkanization of search content with some books coming up in Google's results and not in Microsoft's or visa versa. I'm sure the search engine companies see this as only a temporary state of affairs until they achieve total global domination.
This story brings to mind iTunes U, Apples offer to universities to host audio content for free, making it available through iTunes. There are a number of universities who've taken Apple up on the offer, even though it just doesn't make sense to me.
Putting audio into iTunes U doesn't mitigate the need to put it into some other distribution system, unless you're willing to force all of your users to use iTunes. Locking up information in a proprietary platform is not a good choice for a university to make.
But then, universities have been sliding down that slope for years. Many research journals are copyrighted and have very restrictive redistribution terms. After getting the universities to contribute the articles for publication, they turn around and sell them their own content when university libraries subscribe to the journals.
The question comes down to whether we believe our access to information will be shaped by commercial concerns or principles of openness. Quoting the Time article again:
"There are two opposed pathways being mapped out," said Paul Duguid, an adjunct professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. "One is shaped by commercial concerns, the other by a commitment to openness, and which one will win is not clear."
The Web has given us eh ability to distribute audio, video, and text very cheaply. That dividend can put toward to making information more freely available or used to create more silos. The pressures to "get things online" on libraries, universities, and other public institutions is too great to expect them to hold out on principle when an offer too good to be true comes along. Unless society is willing to support openness, commercial concerns will win out. OCA points out an open pathway that we can chose--if we want.