[Paleopsych] CHE: Don't Get Goggle-Eyed Over Google's Plan to Digitize

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Thu Apr 14 14:43:32 UTC 2005

Don't Get Goggle-Eyed Over Google's Plan to Digitize
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.11

[I'm sure that, before long, there will have formed a coalition to 
pressure Congress to modify the copyright laws.]


    If you haven't heard about Google's plan to digitize millions of
    books, you must live in another galaxy. Hardly a news outlet in the
    country, digitized or no, missed the story at the end of last year.

    Most people were pleased by the news. It seemed that books would
    finally be available at your fingertips. Google had embarked on a
    grand scheme to digitize the world's greatest works, in cooperation
    with the world's greatest libraries. Break out the champagne!

    Not a few bean counters at colleges and universities around the world
    must have thought, "At long last. We can kick the library in the
    archives and be done with that financial black hole." Some librarians
    may have had a similar vision of the future and been dismayed,
    although most of them were optimistic about Google's plan.

    Digitization is big news; it's a good idea; and it's inevitable. But
    let's not get all goggle-eyed over Google right away. Here are five
    reasons not to tear up your library card quite yet.

    Copyright. A recent Chronicle article ([3]"Google Will Digitize and
    Search Millions of Books From 5 Top Research Libraries," January 7)
    was one of the few early reports to mention copyright. Current
    copyright law, to say nothing of Congress's continuing interest in
    increasing the length of time that works are protected by copyright,
    should give everyone at Google heartburn.

    At least in the early days, Google plans to rely chiefly on books that
    are in the public domain -- in general, works published before 1923
    -- to avoid paying substantial fees to the copyright holders. The
    company says that for more-recent books it will provide only a few
    short excerpts, which it claims would not violate copyright. However,
    some publishers argue that scanning a book to digitize it constitutes
    reproduction, for which permission is required by law.

    That permission can be expensive. Only recently the library where I
    work encountered the sting of copyright fees on a small scale, when we
    asked permission to digitize an article from a book. The publisher
    charged us the same price as it would have if we had been putting
    together a whole course pack. The rationale was probably that
    digitization is replacing course packs, or that previous copyright
    fees were too low.

    Of course the giant Google will have far more influence over
    publishers than any one library could. But will Google have so much
    influence as to make copyright fees too low to matter? That's

    Past failures. Four other companies have tried to do just the sort of
    digitization that Google is undertaking, and they have had problems.
    One of them, NetLibrary, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and became,
    in much-scaled-down form, a subsidiary of the Online Computer Library
    Center. A second, Questia, remains independent, but it has reduced its
    work force significantly and is on shaky legs. Each company began with
    over $80-million in venture capital; neither found that to be enough.
    The third company, Project Xanadu, is little more than a Web presence

    Project Gutenberg has done better than the other companies, but it
    still begs for dollars on its Web site from would-be users,
    foundations, and anyone else who might lend an ear, and a dime. As a
    free site for digitized texts ([4]http://www.promo.net/pg/index.html),
    it specializes in public-domain books and includes some of the works
    that Google is interested in. But Google also wants to digitize books
    still in copyright. Does it have a better idea than the previous
    for-profit businesses, or at least more money to make an old idea work
    this time around?

    Preserving books. Yes, the new machines that Google has can digitize
    pages with incredible speed. But no matter how fast (and faster, in
    this case, may not be better), digitization is not good for books,
    however good it may be for the reader. Who is going to pay for the
    books damaged in digitization? What happens when a rare book is

    My guess is that Google has underestimated, perhaps substantially, the
    percentage of books that will be damaged or that cannot undergo rapid
    digitization. Not only will some books be too fragile, or bound too
    tightly to lie flat, but even some newer books, owing to rapid
    manufacture, fall out of their bindings in 12 months or less. Handling
    -- even by careful digitizers -- will doubtless leave more than a few
    volumes without covers. Working with both groups of titles will
    increase Google's costs.

    Google's future. What would happen to all the digitized books if
    -- perish the thought -- Google's scheme comes to an unhappy end, like
    NetLibrary, Questia, or Xanadu?

    It would be very easy for libraries to become overreliant on Google,
    with pressures on them from every side to reduce costs. In that case,
    what would librarians do if Google suddenly vanished or went out of
    the digitization business?

    Ecological concerns. Whenever any of us arrives at a Web site that has
    information we need, what do we usually do after checking out the
    first or second screen? We hit the print button.

    Imagine thousands of students, faculty and staff members, and other
    library patrons all punching that print key. Of course Google wouldn't
    pay for the printing. But even if the libraries that offer access to
    Google's digitized material pass the printing costs on to their
    patrons, will our glorious digitized library come at the expense of
    the few forests we have left?

    Other concerns also come to mind. For example, what about the
    increased potential for plagiarism? What about Google's heavy reliance
    on material in English? The head of the National Library of France has
    expressed his worry that the project will be "powerfully marked by the
    view of Anglo-Saxons" ([5]The Chronicle, March 4).

    What kind of advertising will Google use to pay at least some of the
    costs of digitization? Academics tend to be particularly allergic to
    ads and other distractions on their computer screens. Google already
    relies on ads to cover its costs; presumably it will do the same for
    digitization. Would scholars tolerate having an ad about, say,
    erectile dysfunction pop up as they read Stanley Fish's Surprised by
    Sin, in order to have the work digitized?

    The digitized "library" would undeniably be for picking and choosing,
    not really for reading. Is that the attitude toward books that we want
    to encourage -- the view that sound bites are more important than
    substantive thought?

    Those are not necessarily insurmountable obstacles for Google.
    However, they are formidable.

    Besides, the portability, convenience, and even comfort of a book are
    integral components of our intellectual lives. No one has yet made a
    convincing case that it's time to give up on books -- or libraries.

    Mark Y. Herring is dean of library services at Winthrop University.
    His most recent book is Raising Funds With Friends Groups
    (Neal-Schuman, 2004).


    3. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i18/18a03701.htm
    4. http://www.promo.net/pg/index.html
    5. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i26/26a03501.htm

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