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Wooden Dominoes

Submitted by Tom Peters on February 6, 2007 - 7:51pm

Yesterday Princeton University Woodrow Wilson on $100,000 U.S. Noteannounced it has joined Google's mass digitization project, adding another million volumes to the maw. I reckon people will begin speculating what former president (of both Princeton and the U.S.) Woodrow Wilson would have made of Princeton's participation in Google's project. At least the speculative heat will be off Thomas Jefferson for awhile, who was invoked by University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman to defend this project from beyond the grave.

All of this fills me with wonder. Are we witnessing a fresh new instance of the domino theory, with the nations of Southeast Asia replaced by Association of Research Libraries' member libraries? The parallels between efforts to stem the growth of Communism in the mid-twentieth century and current efforts to contain the Google wen are eerily similar. Dominoes Waiting to FallFirst the French tried and, predictably, failed. Then the U.S. appeared as the last great hope. If the feds decide to take on Google, it would be the largest corporate domestic war since the Teddy Roosevelt era. Is Hillary or Barack up to such a challenge?

Princeton is the twelfth research library to join. These announcements are becoming routine, and I pity the poor writers of these press releases, who must search in vain for some interesting new angle (Time to make the doughnuts: quote the president, then the provost, then the university librarian).

Still, there is something about this massive digitization project that befuddles me. I usually scoff at conspiracy theories, but something does not seem quite right about all this. I've been trying to put my finger on it for months. Here's my short list of ruminations:

  • Google is not a philanthropic organization, so how does the company plan to recoup its investment of millions of dollars and turn a handsome profit? I have not been privy to these negotiations between Google and each of the major research universities and/or libraries, but the agreements must be perceived as obviously beneficial to both parties, because—despite investment risks and lawsuits—Google continues to push forward, and the universities seem to be lining up to get on Google's dance card.

  • Is there a secret war room in some bunker deep beneath the surface of Mountain View, where top management types move little book trucks and planetary scanners, instead of battle ships and troop divisions, around on a world map?

  • Who are the battlefront troops in this mass digitization effort? Are they idealistic young people in white jump suits or ex-cons transitioning back into society? What do they think of mass digitization projects as seen from the trenches? Is anyone studying and interviewing these foot soldiers in the mass digitization wars?

  • What is the digitization process being used? Why is it all so hush-hush? With all the organizations and individuals involved, I'm surprised the top-secret process is not widely known and imitated by now.

  • What will be the unexpected outcomes of this and other mass digitization projects? Will super intelligent zombie robots (zombots) ingest all this digital information and lord it over us mere mortals? Will the federal government, state legislatures, alumni, and other major funding sources for universities decide that research universities don't warrant the continued level of financial support they have had since WWII? Perhaps the entire social contract between research universities and the society as a whole is at stake. As with the development of nuclear weapons, the interstate highway system, and Asian land wars, and as we undertake these projects we seem blithely—almost willfully—ignorant of what will be the true and lasting outcomes, be they laudable or lamentable.

Technorati: books, digitizing books, Google Library Project, libraries

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Comments (14)

I think that this move by

I think that this move by Google will hopefully get more of our youths interested in reading and make hard to get material more accessible. Google exist to make a profit yes, but like Search engines, the advertisers pay. We the consumer get the benefit of being able to find the information we need quickly when we go to the search engines. Similarly, it is possible that some aspect of this digitalization project will be free and in my mind that will be beneficial to the society at large.

I think that this move by

I think that this move by Google will hopefully get more of our youths interested in reading and make hard to get material more accessible. Google exist to make a profit yes, but like Search engines, the advertisers pay. We the consumer get the benefit of being able to find the information we need quickly when we go to the search engines. Similarly, it is possible that some aspect of this digitalization project will be free and in my mind that will be beneficial to the society at large.

... as I was going to say

... as I was going to say before I rudely interrupted myself, Jeffrey Toobin has explained why that's good for Google and for publishers, but not for the rest of us.

It's still a public asset.

It's still a public asset. That is, the books are still in the library, where they were before Google scanned them. I'm not happy that Google habitually is so reluctant to share information, and I worry about a large corporation having a free hand with so much of our culture - but we didn't scan our books, and if we did our university counsels would have spontaneously combusted. But being able to search the contents of books does benefit society and we couldn't do that before unless we were Amazon customers. (You can only 'search inside the book' after you've made a purchase.) And we couldn't launch an audacious project that had the potential to redefine fair use because we couldn't afford the lawsuits. Google can. Unfortunately, they probably will settle out of court and, as Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in The New Yorker that's not a good outcome for the rest of us, just for Google and publishers.

bowerbird, I don't see how

bowerbird, I don't see how Google indexing books benefits society; we've simply privatized public assets. Why is this good?

Great post Tom! I am

Great post Tom! I am reminded of the famous quote from Krushchev that you can count on capitalists to sell you the rope to hang them with. US research libraries may be doing something even more foolish -- giving a private corporation the rope to hang libraries with. All Google will need is some good 'orphan works' legislation from their pals in the Congress and they will be in the e-book business big time. Who needs libraries when that happens? Libraries are already having to defend themselves from lots of folks who say the Internet has made us obsolete. At least now we can argue that you can't get free books on the Internet (unless you are one of the very small group of public domain book enthusiasts). That could all change in a few years. The long tail of e-books, supported by advertising, could be a real sweet business for Google. And to think that they got the inventory for the cost of scanning. And what do the research libraries get out of it? Nothing that I can see. If librarians had their act together we would have figured out a consortial effort to do all this scanning ourselves and keep the inventory in our control, out of private hands. Some real leadership and imagination from the Library of Congress or OCLC could have made it happen. Now it's probably too late. Our fate might be sealed. Someone tell me I'm wrong about this.

At the CARLI annual meeting

At the CARLI annual meeting last November, we heard from Mark Sandler, Director of the Center for Library Initiatives at the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), who was working as Collection Development Officer at the UMich library when Google initiated the talks and during the early stages of the project after it rolled out. He gave us all some insight beyond the headlines, and into the process that led up to the big announcement in 2005. His presentation is here, though it's good powerpoint, which means the slides themselves are light on content but served as a great addition to a well prepared talk.

google's founders are doing

google's founders are doing the right thing -- indexing the world's knowledge, for the benefit of society. (a society, by the way, which is failing to act responsibly itself, by taking on the task of having public entities indexing this information.) the google boys are confident that if they do the right thing, they'll make a profit. they always have. even if it doesn't pan out in this case, they'll still be rich.

Geeze such paranoia. Well,

Geeze such paranoia. Well, the technology being used is off the shelf scanning machines used not only by Google but other scanning projects, libraries, governments, corporations, etc.. no great mystery there, there are websites with videos showing how they operate. The people doing the scanning are usually low or no paid interns - it is not a skilled job. The scanning is done at the library not in CA. Google 'makes money' by being the biggest search engine available - it's like asking how does one make money by indexing the web. Books are bigger than the web.

the first four comments

the first four comments above are an excellent summary of the range of thinking of well-meaning people on the Google question. the problem is that the range runs from 'i'm not sure but let's trust the process' to 'i'm not sure.' although humans have figured out how to split atoms and make machines that can perform a trillion operation per second, we've yet to develop skills for understanding the long-term social implications of our technological prowess. my instinct, and of course that's all it is, continues to be that allowing a private corporation to be practically the sole-keeper of our collective memory will over time re-shape society in profound ways that we really should try to get a handle on now since i don't believe in a future which includes only utopian views; for after all, the bus stops at dystopia too. maybe it's time to call out the science fiction writers to conjure up some likely scenarios for what the future might hold.

Tom's questions are

Tom's questions are excellent; quite a few of us feel ambivalent at best about sole-sourcing the public intellectual good into a commercial provider. You can believe that Google means well, and that its library partners mean well, and still question that approach. Pondering the unexpected consequences is exactly what some of us should be doing.

C, I did not intend this

C, I did not intend this post to imply that Google's book digitization project is inherently evil. As I stated, I'm befuddled by this project. The outcomes could be overwhelming good for humankind, or overwhelming bad, or a mixture of both. Or the project could not come to fruition, or it could be of so little use that it will be remembered as an expensive folly. I agree that we cannot predict with certainty what will be the true and lasting outcomes, but there seems to be an imaginative vacuum currently and collectively. We all seem focused on the deals, the details, and the rights issues and seem unable or unwilling to consider the larger, long-term impact on librarianship, higher education, the life of the mind, and social and cultural development.

I don't think we CAN know

I don't think we CAN know what the true and lasting outcomes will be yet. But it seems to me that one coherent collection of millions of books is likely to be vastly more useful for everyone than the hundreds of separated collections of thousands of books libraries and vendors have so far created. Libraries wouldn't monetize such a collection; Google has to. But Google has the resources to do it; libraries don't, individually or collectively. I am also skeptical about what it will look like when it's done, but I disagree with the implication that Google's Book project is inherently evil.

I certainly understand

I certainly understand Tom's sentiment. A project like this is just really hard to get your mind around. Anyone who thinks she does have her mind around it is probably fooling herself at least a little bit. But I would suggest that we who have chosen to participate are not unwittingly falling like dominoes, pushed by circumstances beyond our control. We are participating because we see something really exciting, something beyond ourselves and even beyond our institutions in Google's project. I would also say, at least for myself, that fear of the unknown is not so strong as optimism and imagination about what might be possible when 30 million books are indexed like billions of Web page. It's not just about page views. On a more pragmatic level, one has a better chance to affect events from within than from the sidelines. Google has shown itself to be remarkably responsive to its library partners' concerns. Even aspects of the project which trouble me are aspects I feel free, no, encouraged to address with Google and to advocate for a shift in Google's position. As an analogy, think back to what our first database licenses were like: they were horrible, disastrous messes. We were offered much less than we needed. But we slogged through those deals and little by little we negotiated more reasonable, mutually beneficial terms. Thanks to the work of librarians on the front lines, engaged in the task of working, one deal at a time to make the deals better, we made progress. Large-scale digitization projects will evolve too. One must start such evolution somewhere. I'm happy to be part of the first wave of participants in what I'm sure will ultimately be many diverse large-scale projects. In fact, I am certain that my institution will participate in others. We'll want to take advantage of other opportunities as they arise, and work to push the boundaries of what's possible a little harder.