I’m quite disappointed by this op-ed on Google’s library intiative in Tuesday’s Washington Post. It comes from Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents 570 independent colleges and universities in the US (and a few abroad). Generally, these are mid-tier schools — not the elite powerhouses Google has partnered with in its digitization efforts — and so, being neither a publisher, nor a direct representative of one of the cooperating libraries, I expected Ekman might take a more measured approach to this issue, which usually elicits either ecstatic support or vociferous opposition. Alas, no.
Emmanuel d’Alzon Library, Assumption College, Worcester MA
To the opposition, namely, the publishing industry, Ekman offers the usual rationale: Google, by digitizing the collections of six of the english-speaking world’s leading libraries (and, presumably, more are to follow) is doing humanity a great service, while still fundamentally respecting copyrights — so let’s not stand in its way. With Google, however, and with his own peers in education, he is less exacting.
The nation’s colleges and universities should support Google’s controversial project to digitize great libraries and offer books online. It has the potential to do a lot of good for higher education in this country.
Now, I’ve poked around a bit and located the agreement between Google and the U. of Michigan (freely available online), which affords a keyhole view onto these grand bargains. Basically, Google makes scans of U. of M.’s books, giving them images and optical character recognition files (the texts gleaned from the scans) for use within their library system, keeping the same for its own web services. In other words, both sides get a copy, both sides win.
If you’re not Michigan or Google, though, the benefits are less clear. Sure, it’s great that books now come up in web searches, and there’s plenty of good browsing to be done (and the public domain texts, available in full, are a real asset). But we’re in trouble if this is the research tool that is to replace, by force of market and by force of users’ habits, online library catalogues. That’s because no sane librarian would outsource their profession to an unaccountable private entity that refuses to disclose the workings of its system — in other words, how does Google’s book algorithm work, how are the search results ranked? And yet so many librarians are behind this plan. Am I to conclude that they’ve all gone insane? Or are they just so anxious about the pace of technological change, driven to distraction by fears of obsolescence and diminishing reach, that they are willing to throw their support uncritically behind the company, who, like a frontier huckster, promises miracle cures and grand visions of universal knowledge?
Allen Ginsberg Library, Naropa University, Boulder CO
We may be resigned to the steady takeover of college bookstores around the country by Barnes and Noble, but how do we feel about a Barnes and Noble-like entity taking over our library systems? Because that is essentially what is happening. We ought to consider the Google library pact as the latest chapter in a recent history of consolidation and conglomeratization in publishing, which, for the past few decades (probably longer, I need to look into this further) has been creeping insidiously into our institutions of higher learning. When Google struck its latest deal with the University of California, and its more than 100 libraries, it made headlines in the technology and education sections of newspapers, but it might just as well have appeared in the business pages under mergers and acquisitions.
So what? you say. Why shouldn’t leaders in technology and education seek each other out and forge mutually beneficial relationships, relationships that might yield substantial benefits for large numbers of people? Okay. But we have to consider how these deals among titans will remap the information landscape for the rest of us. There is a prevailing attitude today, evidenced by the simplistic public debate around this issue, that one must accept technological advances on the terms set by those making the advances. To question Google (and its collaborators) means being labeled reactionary, a dinosaur, or technophobic. But this is silly. Criticizing Google does not mean I am against digital libraries. To the contrary, I am wholeheartedly in favor of digital libraries, just the right kind of digital libraries.
What good is Google’s project if it does little more than enhance the world’s elite libraries and give Google the competitive edge in the search wars (not to mention positioning them in future ebook and print-on-demand markets)? Not just our little institute, but larger interest groups like the CIC ought to be voices of caution and moderation, celebrating these technological breakthroughs, but at the same time demanding that Google Book Search be more than a cushy quid pro quo between the powerful, with trickle-down benefits that are dubious at best. They should demand commitments from the big libraries to spread the digital wealth through cooperative web services, and from Google to abide by certain standards in its own web services, so that smaller librarians in smaller ponds (and the users they represent) can trust these fantastic and seductive new resources. But Ekman, who represents 570 of these smaller ponds, doesn’t raise any of these questions. He just joins the chorus of approval.
Main Library, Seeley G. Mudd Center, Oberlin College, Oberlin OH
What’s frustrating is that the partner libraries themselves are in the best position to make demands. After all, they have the books that Google wants, so they could easily set more stringent guidelines for how these resources are to be redeployed. But why should they be so magnanimous? Why should they demand that the wealth be shared among all institutions? If every student can access Harvard’s books with the click of a mouse, than what makes Harvard Harvard? Or Stanford Stanford?
Enlightened self-interest goes only so far. And so I repeat, that’s why people like Ekman, and organizations like the CIC, should be applying pressure to the Harvards and Stanfords, as should organizations like the Digital Library Federation, which the Michigan-Google contract mentions as a possible beneficiary, through “cooperative web services,” of the Google scanning. As stipulated in that section (4.4.2), however, any sharing with the DLF is left to Michigan’s “sole discretion.” Here, then, is a pressure point! And I’m sure there are others that a more skilled reader of such documents could locate. But a quick Google search (acceptable levels of irony) of “Digital Library Federation AND Google” yields nothing that even hints at any negotiations to this effect. Please, someone set me straight, I would love to be proved wrong.
Google, a private company, is in the process of annexing a major province of public knowledge, and we are allowing it to do so unchallenged. To call the publishers’ legal challenge a real challenge, is to misidentify what really is at stake. Years from now, when Google, or something like it, exerts unimaginable influence over every aspect of our informated lives, we might look back on these skirmishes as the fatal turning point. So that’s why I turn to the librarians. Raise a ruckus.
UPDATE (8/25): The University of California-Google contract has just been released. See my post on this.