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KU Leuven, Royal Library of Belgium and Google to put thousands of books and historic documents online

28 February 2022

KU Leuven Libraries, KBR (Royal Library of Belgium) and Google signed agreements to share a large portion of important digitized documents reflecting the rich cultural and historical heritage located in the libraries

This entails several thousand works, some dating back to the 15th century, that will be made freely accessible in the coming years via Google Books and the institutions’ own library catalogues.

Highlights are the printed works by professors of the University of Leuven published before the abolishment of the Old University in 1797, several thousands of works from the world’s largest collection of books printed in Brussels (15th-18th century) and recognised unique pieces such as the first work in Western literature dedicated exclusively to biographies of women.

Hilde Van Kiel, Director KU Leuven Libraries, explains why this project is of such great value: “By sharing our high-quality files with Google, they become more broadly accessible via Google Books. The images of our heritage collections are converted into textual, searchable data. This fits perfectly within KU Leuven's open data policy and will boost research on collections such as Lovaniensia or Jesuitica.”

Sara Lammens , General Director a.i. at KBR, adds: “In its action plan for the upcoming years, KBR expressed the wish to contribute to the democratic foundations of an increasingly digital society by making a large amount of authentic information available to citizens. Putting more information online, improving access to that information and facilitating research in the digital humanities are our current priorities.” More than 80,000 digitised works have been selected from the libraries' collection. The collaboration will start in the course of 2022.

The selected books have been previously scanned at the libraries and the digital versions will be sent over to Google’s data centers to be further enriched with data allowing the text to be searchable and machine readable. After this process is complete, Google will make the digital copies available on Google Books. “The KU Leuven Libraries and KBR will also keep a copy of the enriched data which will be incorporated into their own catalogue. The books that are part of this project are no longer subject to copyright”, explains Stefano Reccia, Partner Manager at Google for the digitisation project.

In the EU countries, Google digitises all publications that are in the public domain (generally publications older than 125 years), with the exception of everything that has already been digitised in partnership with other libraries.

Google announced last year a collaboration to digitise a large portion of the collections of the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library and the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

Earlier an agreement was signed with the Ghent University Library. Across the world, Google has digitised numerous collections, including the university libraries of Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, among others. KU Leuven and KBR can now be added to that list.

Ben Bunnell, manager of the Google Books project, is delighted with the collaboration. "Google Books was launched 15 years ago, with the ambition to make all books from around the world digitally available and searchable for everyone. We are pleased that these important Belgian libraries support this great ambition." Stefano Reccia, who initiated the partnerships with the Belgian libraries adds: "This collaboration adds an incredibly rich collection from Belgium to our corpus, and brings us a crucial step closer to achieving our mission."

Among the selected documents are:

  • Printed works by professors of the Old University of Leuven (1425-1797), digitised in the framework of the Lovaniensia project.
  • Corble collection: collection of the British fencer Archibald Corble (1883-1944), one of the world's most extensive collections on the history of fencing.
  • A unique collection of 25,000 books printed in Brussels in the 17th and 18th centuries: the largest collection of old and rare books from the capital of the (Southern) Low Countries, with a strong emphasis on government publications in French, Dutch, Spanish and Latin.
  • The most complete collection in the world of pamphlets and leaflets from the time of the Brabant revolution that led to the independent United States of Belgium (1789-1790), comprising nearly 7.000 items.

Some of the scanned works are already accessible on Google Books, such as:

  • Giovanni Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (Leuven, 1487): this collection of biographies of mythological and historical women is the first work in Western literature dedicated exclusively to biographies of women. This edition, lavishly decorated with woodcuts, is the most beautiful incunabulum (book printed before 1540) printed in Leuven. See here for a version on Google Books.
  • Unio pro conservation rei publice (Antwerp, 1515): this very rare book (4 copies preserved) is the eldest printed edition of polyphonic music in the Netherlands. It celebrates the visits of emperor Maximilian of Austria and his successor Charles V to the city of Antwerpen in 1508 and 1515. See here for a version on Google Books.

Source: KU Leuven

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