April 24, 2007

From abolition to algebra, CU Library's unique holdings are available to readers online

A selection of rare and out-of-print historical materials at Cornell University Library is only a click away for readers using a new print-on-demand service.

The library partnered with BookSurge, a subsidiary of Amazon.com, in June 2006 to make available some of its unique non-copyrighted holdings -- collections ranging from historical mathematics and agriculture texts to anti-slavery pamphlets.

Anyone browsing Amazon.com can now access 3,500 Cornell titles available for sale, and other documents are being added. Google BookSearch also will lead users to Cornell titles on Amazon. (BookSurge also distributes print-on-demand historical materials from the University of Michigan Library and the library publisher Thomson-Gale; and Microsoft's LiveSearch Books service carries public domain materials from Cornell and other universities.)

Available Cornell collections on Amazon include New York state historical literature (a popular resource for genealogists), South East Asia Visions (historical Western travel narratives), core historical literature in agriculture, historical math monographs and materials related to home economics and kinematics (a collection of mechanical models housed at Cornell).

"We know from a number of studies that making older materials accessible online breeds new use of the content," said Anne Kenney, interim University Librarian.

Customers who order a title receive a page-by-page reproduction of the original contents, bound in a paperback cover.

"Within six months, we will have sent more than 6,000 titles to Amazon from these collections," said Fiona Patrick, digital library services coordinator.

Heavily visual and large-format books and titles of 740 pages or more are currently excluded, she said.

From January to March, there were 670 sales on Amazon of 454 different print-on-demand Cornell titles, and Patrick expects to see another 450 sales in April alone.

"Our top priorities are supporting users and leveraging the library's investment. With the availability of new services and tools, the library wanted to find innovative and far-reaching ways to contribute to scholarly communication," said Oya Rieger, director of digital library and information technologies.

While scholars and other users have been able to access library content online for years, "we are supporting that still-existing need for print copies," she said. "When a book is retrieved online from the library's Web site, we will indicate that it is available print-on-demand via Amazon in case a user wants to have a print copy in addition to viewing it online."

One of the library's exclusive collections, the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery archive, represents the lion's share of the content, with some 2,000 titles available. Cornell's two best-selling print-on-demand titles are "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade" by John Newton, the composer of "Amazing Grace" and a former slave ship captain, and a tract by British abolitionist and member of Parliament William Wilberforce. Patrick said the high interest in these items stems from a recent film relating the story behind "Amazing Grace."

Print-on-demand is an attractive alternative for scholars on a budget. Another top seller, the 1898 textbook "A Treatise on Universal Algebra with Applications" by Alfred North Whitehead, is available from Cornell for $35.99 versus $600 for the original from a used book dealer.

The service is an extension of the library's Large-Scale Digitization Initiative, which processes up to 10,000 books a month. The library is also collaborating with faculty to collate research collections and make them available online. "It is part of a broad effort with faculty to create more customized portals in support of research, learning and teaching for online users," Rieger said.