Google Books History

In the beginning, there was Google Books.

Well, not exactly. But one can certainly argue that the project is as old as Google itself. In 1996, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were graduate computer science students working on a research project supported by the Stanford Digital Library Technologies Project. Their goal was to make digital libraries work, and their big idea was as follows: in a future world in which vast collections of books are digitized, people would use a “web crawler” to index the books’ content and analyze the connections between them, determining any given book’s relevance and usefulness by tracking the number and quality of citations from other books.

The crawler they wound up building was called BackRub, and it was this modern twist on traditional citation analysis that inspired Google’s PageRank algorithms – the core search technology that makes Google, well, Google.

Even then, Larry and Sergey envisioned people everywhere being able to search through all of the world’s books to find the ones they’re looking for. What they couldn’t have imagined was that one day they would launch a project to help make it happen. Herewith, a brief tour through some of the major milestones so far:


A small group of Googlers officially launches the secret “books” project. They begin talking to experts about the challenges ahead, starting with a simple but crucial question: how long would it take to digitally scan every book in the world? It turns out, oddly enough, that no one knows. In typical Google fashion, Larry Page decides to experiment on his own. In the office one day, he and Marissa Mayer, one of our first product managers, use a metronome to keep rhythm as they methodically turn the pages of a 300-page volume. It takes a full 40 minutes to reach the end.

Inspired by the extraordinary digitization projects underway all around the world – the Library of Congress’s American Memory project, Project Gutenberg, the Million Book Project and the Universal Library, to name only a few – the team embarks on a series of site visits to learn about how they work.

As part of this fact-finding mission, Larry Page reaches out to the University of Michigan, his alma mater and a pioneer in library digitization efforts including JSTOR and Making of America. When he learns that the current estimate for scanning the university library’s seven million volumes is 1,000 years, he tells university president Mary Sue Coleman he believes Google can help make it happen in six.


A team member travels to a charity book fair in Phoenix, Arizona, to acquire books for testing non-destructive scanning techniques. After countless rounds of experimentation, the team develops a scanning method that’s much gentler than current common high-speed processes. This makes the team happy – and the books themselves even happier.

At the same time, the team’s software engineers make progress toward resolving the tricky technical issues they encounter processing information from books that contain odd type sizes, unusual fonts or other unexpected peculiarities – in 430 different languages.


Established in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, the mission of the Bodleian library at Oxford University has always been to serve not just the university community but the entire world. The team visits the renowned library and is overwhelmed by the warm reception they receive.

During a tour of the stacks, the librarians bring out centuries-old “uncut” books that have only rarely seen the light of day. For the first time since Shakespeare was a working playwright, the dream of exponentially expanding the small circle of literary scholars with access to these books seems within reach.

The visit is inspiring, and follow-up meetings and discussions lead to a formal partnership to digitize the library’s incomparable collection of more than one million 19th-century public domain books within three years.

Meanwhile, a series of exploratory talks with some of the world’s biggest publishers begins to bear fruit. In October, Larry and Sergey announce “Google Print” at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. The first publishers to join the program: Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, the University of Chicago Press, Houghton Mifflin, Hyperion, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, Pearson, Penguin, Perseus, Princeton University Press, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Thomson Delmar and Warner Books.

In December, we announce the beginning of the “Google Print” Library Project, made possible by partnerships with Harvard, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library, Oxford and Stanford. The combined collections at these extraordinary libraries are estimated to exceed 15 million volumes.


One year after Google Print’s debut, the team returns to the Frankfurt Book Fair to reveal that “Google Print” is now accepting partners in eight European countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

In keeping with our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, we donate $3 million to the Library of Congress to help build the World Digital Library, which will provide online access to a collection of rare and unique items from all around the world. We also extend our pilot scanning program with the Library, which includes digitizing works of historical value from the Library of Congress Law Library.

Google renames “Google Print” Google Books, which more accurately reflects how people use it. The team also responds to the controversy over the Library Project by engaging in public debate about its underlying principles.


In a moving speech at the Association of American Publishers (AAP), University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman explains why the university has chosen to partner with us on the Library Project, underscoring the importance of digitizing books in the face of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and adding, “We believed in this forever."

In March we attend the London Book Fair, where some of our publisher partners share their experiences so far.

Shortly afterward, we invite our partners to tell us whether they wish to sell readers full access to books online – right in their browsers. This is the first of many new options we’re developing in close collaboration with publishers to help them experiment with innovative ways to sell books online.

Over the summer, we help Shakespeare in the Park kick off its 50th year with free performances in Central Park by creating a place to find and search the Bard’s complete plays online. While in NYC, we also attend Book Expo America, and give publishers’ and authors’ in the US a taste of what users will see when they join the Books Partner Program.

We launch a series of product enhancements to make Book Search more useful and easier to use. First, we expand access to the public domain works we’ve scanned by adding a download a PDF button to all out-of-copyright books. A few months later, we release a new browsing interface that makes it easier to browse and navigate Book Search. The new interface is also accompanied by new About this Book pages which use Google algorithms to populate pages with rich related content on a book -- initially, related books, selected pages and references from scholarly works.

In the fall, four new libraries join the Library Project: the University of California, University Complutense of Madrid, the University of Wisconsin- Madison and the University of Virginia.


Using the new UI as a launching point, we experiment with new ways for people to interact with books.

Marissa Mayer introduces Universal Search in the US, and Book Search becomes a more integrated part of the Google search experience.

In May, the Cantonal and University Library of Lausanne, and Ghent University Library join the Book Search program, adding a substantial amount of books in French, German, Flemish, Latin and other languages, and bringing the total number of European libraries partners to six.

In July, we add a “View plain text” link to all out-of-copyright books. T.V. Raman explains how this opens the book to adaptive technologies such as screen readers and Braille display, allowing visually impaired users to read these books just as easily as users with sight.

By December, the Book Search interface is available in over 35 languages, from Japanese to Czech to Finnish.  Over 10,000 publishers and authors from 100+ countries are participating in the Book Search Partner Program.  The Library Project expands to 28 partners, including seven international library partners: Oxford University (UK), University of Complutense of Madrid (Spain), the National Library of Catalonia (Spain), University Library of Lausanne (Switzerland), Ghent University (Belgium) and Keio University (Japan).

As we look to the year ahead, we continue to develop our technology and expand our partnerships with publishers and libraries all around the world. Stay tuned...