It just became much easier to locate hard-to-get books, pictures and maps, writes Nicole Manktelow.
A project to connect all Australian libraries and their 40 million-strong collections on the internet will allow readers to locate books, copy portions of them or buy them from online stores including Amazon.
The massive Libraries Australia service (www.libraries australia.nla.gov.au), launched last week, has enough diversity to take a researcher's breath away; it aims to find every book available in 800 libraries around the country.
With one search, online readers can look up titles held anywhere from humble local branches to specialist research collections, says the National Library of Australia assistant director-general of resource sharing, Tony Boston.
"You'll be able to see where Australian libraries hold the item and you may order a copy and have it sent to you electronically," Boston says.
The copying service is limited to comply with copyright law. It allows readers to select only a portion, up to 10 per cent, of any copyrighted book within the sprawling catalogue. The service then sends them a file of that text via email.
For those who would prefer to own, rather than borrow or copy, Libraries Australia has created relationships with online bookstores, including the American giant Amazon. Readers can search for a book in the Libraries Australia database and, if they want to buy, connect directly to a retailer's catalogue.
"We had intended to link to many Australian bookshops," Boston explains. However, only two bookshops, Reader's Refuge (www.readersrefuge.com.au) and Books & Collectibles (www.booksandcollectibles.com.au) have so far taken up the invitation.
Libraries Australia makes no revenue from these links, Boston says. The only money an online reader is asked for is merely to cover the costs of copying materials. It costs $13.20 for 50 pages.
It's not just books that readers will find at Libraries Australia. The service catalogues newspapers and journals, pictures, maps, music, manuscripts and academic theses. A lot of material is housed at government and university libraries. Many, such as the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory, Bureau of Meteorology and the Centre for Automotive Safety Research, cover materials quite different to standard local library fare. "You could argue that local libraries have very similar collections, but there are also university libraries with research materials, state libraries with heritage materials, research and health libraries - the whole database is quite diverse. There's not another one like it in the world," Boston says.
For general readers it provides instant access, with the choice to borrow, copy or buy, depending on availability. For researchers, it means being able to locate some highly specialised resources from a single entry point. And, for curious authors, there's also the opportunity to find out how many libraries keep copies of their titles.
Libraries Australia is run by the National Library of Australia, which is no slouch at putting content online. The NLA provides access to 600,000 complete books, manuscripts, pictures and maps, which teams of librarians have dutifully scanned over recent years.
Both the digital collection and the Libraries Australia project are part of the NLA's push to improve access for the general public, especially those in rural areas (provided they can access adequate internet connections).
Libraries Australia's ancestor is the Australian Bibliographic Network, established in the early 1980s for libraries and their staff to share resources. As if converting this idea into a far-reaching, reader-friendly online service wasn't challenging enough, the NLA is contemplating the largest possible public debut.
For the moment, its users will be those who visit the site directly, but in coming months the NLA will open the floodgates and allow the service's 40 million records to be accessed by major search engines. "In the next six months we'll be exposing all the content in the database to search engines such as Google," Boston says.