Large-scale digitization initiatives (LSDIs) like Google Book Search and the Open Content Alliance have extraordinary potential to reshape the social world. However, the scholarly community currently lacks adequate conceptualizations to describe these phenomena and assess what they might portend. This paper examines the current state of the literature on LSDIs, finding hundreds of related articles and documents – only a fraction of which add to the conceptualization process. It then describes one way forward in developing a holistic concept of LSDIs upon which to ground further study: by placing them in historical context, as efforts to democratize access to information.