Google, Gorman, the Blogerati, Rosenzweig, and Litwin

Michael Gorman's LA Times [12/17/2004] op ed , "Google and God's Mind," earns response from Political Animal, Kevin Drum. Drum fans the fires of the online blogger community to some fairly reactionary commentary calculated to be clever. People don't know our field and don't take the time to read about it. Comments (139 of them!) include:
  • This crusty librarian will be replaced by a grad student, and go to his grave bitterly defending the way things used to be.
  • We need to stay with stone tablets. This modern "paper and ink" material upsets me terribly.
  • I think this is a 'keeping the troops in line' Op/ed. That is, somebody spazzed about google threatening to destroy publishing and he's reassuring them that they can continue to make buggy whips because horses are better than cars.
Well, you get the drift. Some few less knee-jerk informed blogerati posted more thoughtful comments. Examples:
  • As a followup, I do think it's great to have lots of stuff accessible and searchable on the net, but remember if we don't invest in preserving it for more than a few years, we run the risk of having created works disappear into nothing.

    Also, with so many libraries switching to online journal subscriptions, they are paying for *access* not ownership, and if the publisher ever decides to do away with their electronic archives (or a disaster or mistake destroys those archives), the libraries are basically shafted with no paper copies left. Like renting instead of owning, while paying ownership-level fees.

  • I have strong and somewhat informed opinions about this. I have availed myself of both archival material and digital versions of old texts (my work is in 17th and 18th c intellectual life). Digitizing library collections, especially those of major national libraries and excellent research libraries is extraordinarily helpful for getting the ball rolling. However, it is important not to go utopian on the wonderss of digital technology. Here are three points:
    1. Research value. There is a big difference between looking at an actual book (complete with oddities, squaring it with different editions, etc) and looking at it in digital form. Examining it in person, talking with librarians about collections, talking with others who have different sorts of expertise in book history (ie watermarks on paper) can shed light in all sorts of strange ways. This is especially true with manuscript material, but also true about books...books in libraries usually had original owners who made notes, had other collections, etc. You get none of this context with the digital version, as it is being conceived.
    2. Technology issues. As was noted above, books are durable technologies. It is not clear how durable the storage and interface devices of the proposed databases will be. Can banks access computer records of two decades ago? How much does it cost them to reformat their stored data to new technologies? How many of us have what it takes to read the 5.5" floppies of a decade ago? What about the 3.25" disks?
    3. Economic issues. a. Libraries, especially at Universities, are being pressured to go electronic. So we are under pressure to cut our subscriptions to paper journals in favour of their digital versions. Same thing with newspapers. All this is meant to help with the storage crunch. But imagine what a library would be like if it only shelved current books? What about if it had no books to browse? Would you be able to browse in the same way digitally? Never mind flirting with people in stacks.
    b. Google, right now, is a socially conscious company. But it is publicly owned and traded. What price will it charge for access to these books? What about in the future? Will we need to succumb to advertising to consult works? What happens when the current owners get bored, or someone else takes over? Do we really want the historical cultural record to be privatized in this way? What are the constraints on Google's creation of the database?

    Most people posting only use libraries in a casual way, or targeting in the way lawyers look up cases, or a blogger looks up on line articles. For these sorts of research, on line availability simplifies things tremendously. For others of us what we would be able to do, and to teach others to do, would not only change, but also be in many way completely different from what we do now. And we already experience the pressures in that direction. Its not Luddism, it is realism. And it is important to draw distinctions.

    Nicholson Baker has an excellent book about the digitization of newspapers, Double Fold.

  • I've been reading Drum for at least a year, and there are two subjects he's never showed any familiarity with- reading scholarly books, or librarianship. Now he's going to tell us who's a disgrace to the library profession? Please, somebody, pass the salt....

The 139 posts on Political Animal provide a coffee-shop exchange on what a fairly sophisticated group of those living online think of libraries and librarians.

A long and thoughtful essay by Rory Litwin was posted in his Library Juice (7:26; December 17, 2004),
"On Google's Monetization of Libraries".
This essay provides a well-documented set of observations on Google's plans.
"Google's back-room deal with these universities (which was not worked out in cooperation with the library community though it has implications for libraries as an institution) carries with it a host of problems about which librarians should think carefully before cheering for this corporate giant in its grand plan to assimilate the world's cultural heritage."
If Drum's readers could connect with Litwin's arguments there might be more understanding of the larger issues. As is, we have a response to Gorman on Drum's blog because Drum could blog the LA Times, but not the fuller librarian response. Is a week too long for the blogosphere? Would a post with a librarian response even be read a week out?

N.B. Mark Rosenzweig's comments on Google posted to the ALA Member-Forum have been reprinted at Free-Range Librarian.