Saturday, September 12, 2009

"The Last Library" or the Double Edged Sword of Google Books

I will be the first to admit that I am an unabashed Google fangirl. I swoon over Google Docs. I drool when I think about Gmail applications. I receive terrified restraining orders from the people developing Google Wave. In other words, I love Google.

However, like in many relationships, I have to wonder if my love for Google is blinding me to some questionable behavior. You may have heard about Google Books, the Google Application that aims to create a "digital catalog" of the world's books, to be available for public access online. Google Books is currently in the middle of a settlement with authors and publishers regarding their ability to digitize books that are NOT in the public domain.

If Google wins their settlement they could possibly have access to, "50 percent to 70 percent of all books published since 1923." (CNET News) It would be a groundbreaking and precedent setting case for the future of Digital Libraries and Intellectual Property rights, not only in the US but Globally.

On the face of things Google Books sounds great! A public library that is available to anyone around the world (with internet access)! Knowledge that was once restrained within the physical boundaries of a book can now be accessed by everyone at the same time! What more could you possibly need? Well, actually lots of things.

On October 31, 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg wrote about the possible impact of the Google Books Digitization project in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He makes the prediction that Google Books will be the "last library" due to the fact that Google has a:

"...five-year head start and its relationships with libraries and publishers give it an effective monopoly: No competitor will be able to come after it on the same scale." (Nunberg)

Let's face it, while Google makes a claim for noble intentions: organizing the world's information and making it accessible to everyone, they are still a business. Even I, a very naive lover of Google, am suspicious of it becoming the Wal-Mart of Knowledge.

I WANT to believe in the Google Corporate Mission statement that, "You can make money without doing evil." Oh God, how I want to believe it, but even if Google does keep to its word and remains un-evil I am not comfortable settling for a benevolent dictator.

So on one hand, I admire the intent behind the Google Books project. I too believe that knowledge should be accessible to everyone regardless of socio-economic status or physical disability. Using the internet to do this is a very efficient, quick and cost effective way of going about it. Once you digitize a book, you don't have to do it again. Multiple people can "check out" a digital book while in the physical realm there are only so many printed resources to go around. What librarian WOULDN'T want this??

However you have to look at this situation within the context of real life. If Google becomes the "last library" what will happen to folks without internet access? Even if everyone suddenly has internet access who is to say that Future staff turnover in Google doesn't change their corporate motto from "Do no Evil" to "MONEY MONEY MONEY"? Then the world's knowledge would only be available for whatever price Google decides is fair because we believed that they should be the only caretakers of it.

Evidence also shows that not only is Google trying to organize and digitize the world's knowledge but they aren't going a very good job at it! Norman Oder in the Library journal points out the many THOUSANDS of mistakes that Google makes with their metadata designs. Google actually corrected the critics and stated that they actually have made MILLIONS of mistakes with the metadata. Jon Orwant, the manager of Google Books stated that:

"We have collected over a trillion individual metadata fields; when we use our computing grid to shake them around and decide which books exist in the world, we make billions of decisions and commit millions of mistakes." (Oder)

Library Science is a little more complicated then the Engineers thought. This is what happens when you try to digitally recreate a process in 5 years that has been in progress for over a thousand!

The main problem of course is if Google becomes the "last library", the Librarians will be replaced with Engineers who keep making millions of mistakes in the metadata. The only alternative will be to breed special hybrid Engineer Librarians (the nerdiest species of humanoid alive) who can handle this particular brand of librarianship. Like Google, we will also hope that these cyborg librarians won't turn against us and try to take over the world but of course, they will.

Speculations aside, these kinds of scenarios are the vary ones that we should be thinking about. When considering such important issues as Information Access, we can't afford to hope for the best and try not to think about the worst that could happen. As much as I care for Google, I will have to seriously think about our relationship if Google tries to control my life (more than I let them already) and the world's information.

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