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     Volume 8 Issue 86 | September 10, 2009 |

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Lets get Digital

Nader Rahman

In October 2004 Google started what would be a controversial, acrimonious and litigious process of digitising millions of books from libraries around the world. Initially Oxford University, Harvard, Stanford and two other libraries agreed to have their entire catalogues digitised, but soon the process that was seen as the promoting the democratisation of knowledge also came to be viewed as one that potentially shattered copyright violations. While Google did overstep its boundaries by scanning thousands if not more books that were under copyright, the spirit of their work was often overlooked when it rightly should have been celebrated. There is no denying that a project as ambitious as Google Books has the potential to change how we view and access knowledge and in a way it could be the most important thing to happen to academia since the rise of the internet.

In less than three years they digitised one million books while the current figure sits at well over seven million books. In a way they have become a hard disk of knowledge by making out of print books available again as well as those books in the public domain that do not need copyrights. Google has now become a place for scholars to peer through long lost books without the dust and the allergies of libraries. But the real question is while these developments are taking place across the Atlantic, what possible effect could they have here in Bangladesh?

The answer is that it could revolutionise higher education in Bangladesh and help put more of a research emphasis in university education. Currently the state of higher education in Bangladesh is questionable to say the least, the government universities have become a hot bed of politics, where studies take a back seat to the perennial battle for power. Private universities with their exorbitant fees have become cloning zones, feeding the same questionable education to thousands of students and churning them out with the promise of a good job and salary. The institutions of higher education have become places where in-depth thought and study have been replaced with notes and stock answers. The whole point of university education is to dig beneath the surface of what one is taught, to come up with an idea and follow it. Universities are supposed to use their research facilities and capabilities to foster such thought, but in Bangladesh that is often not the case.

The main problem in Bangladesh is that no university really has the research material to keep its students interested. Library facilities are limited to say the least, and most importantly often books which are needed for scholarly research are out of print or not available. These simple reasons hold back a lot of students from pursuing their studies and research further. No pun intended, but this is where one would take a page out of Google's book. If the government was serious about a Digital Bangladesh, then this could be their foray into turning their ambitions into dreams. The sad truth is that traditional brick and mortar libraries are becoming a thing of the past and digital libraries are the future. If the government took a Google sized step in the direction of digitising all the books in our public libraries, along with larger private collections such as private universities it could soon create a mega database for the average Bangladeshi student to access.

No just like Google there will be a lot of issues that need to be sorted out, firstly books with copyrights can only be digitised after the permission of the copyright holder is obtained and then if they are to be digitised and stored there will have to be some sort of fee that people will have to pay to view that book. Currently Google has settled the lawsuit filed against it by the Authors Guild, by paying a one time fee to digitise a book under copyright, and then sells the book digitally with proceeds both going to the copyright holder and Google. The Government here could take exactly the same path, by paying a one time fee to digitise a book under copyright and then when it is available online it sell it, with proceeds going both to the copyright owner and the government. That money could help fund part of the project and most importantly the government would be opening up a vista for writers, who have held copyrights to books that are not making money for them.

One could still ask why? Why should the government go through all this trouble and obvious expense just to make some books available online? The answer is that by doing so the government would have taken two very big steps, the first would be towards creating that Digital Bangladesh that they hoped for, the second would be highlighting the importance of education and research to our youth. For something lie this to succeed, there need to be little goals and then large ones. The smallest goals could be things like digitising everything ever printed by the Bangla Academy, it would be a great first step to take and would also permanently preserve our most important collections of publications. They could also lease out the process to individuals and organisations on a case by case basis, Google has 20,000 partners in its Book project I doubt we would need that many. Every publishing house could be in charge of digitising their collections, along with newspapers, journals and magazines doing the same. By making this an all-inclusive process everyone would feel a sense of ownership to a project of national importance.

The advantages of such a programme would be endless, if the system was made available to each and every university in Bangladesh, then there could be a real national push towards research-based education. In Fareed Zakaria's 2008 book The Post American World, he comes to a conclusion and that was America was on the wane. It would soon cease to be as important as it previously was and that the only way they could still stay afloat was though their educational system. He said as long as America still had the best educational institutions which with the best teachers and the best research facilities, they would hold their position as the most important and relevant country in the world. And in a way he was right, the educational system in America educates world leaders every year, and often their time spent studying and researching in America has guided their thoughts and ideas, which in turn will guide the countries they will lead.

Bangladesh needs to learn form that example, it may be a long time before we are influential in the world, but till that point we must provide our citizens with an educational experience that will turn them into world leaders. If someone is interested in a subject beyond just memorising what is taught in class, then he must be given the scope to research his interests and come up with a scholarly perspective as well. The more we provide for our students the greater chance we give them to succeed and this book digitisation programme could be just the perfect platform that our government needs both to look forward to a digital Bangladesh but also to look forward to an enlightened Bangladesh.

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