Mike Keller delivered a presentation at OCLC today entitled Mass Digitization in Google Book Search: Effects on Scholarship. Mike is director of Stanford University Libraries, and wears an academic publisher’s hat as well, being responsible for High Wire Press and Stanford University Press. He commands a panoramic view of the digital scholarly landscape, and has the intellect and experience to convert view to vision. This vision is both breathtaking and, in some respects, disturbing.
For those unsettled by the rapidity of Googlian hegemony in library spaces, Mike constructs a vivid and compelling argument for embracing the revolution, reaching back to the digitization of card catalogs. Several salient observations from his remarks:
- Digitization of the card catalog resulted in a 50 % increase in book usage
- Google indexing is the #1 driver of article usage in High Wire – by a large margin (10 to 1 beyond the next highest, if I understood him correctly)
- Metadata searching (what Keller describes as subtle searching), in combination with novel methods of taxonomic search and citation cross-linking, dramatically improves discovery and navigation within large result sets.
It is difficult to resist Keller’s assertion that Google Book Search (GBS) is likely to revolutionize access to books more than any single factor in the library world – if not directly, then indirectly. It would be hard to be a librarian and not find chagrin in this realization. Keller rightly urges us to focus on the larger picture and the many benefits.
Stepping away from the somewhat daunting implications for libraries, Keller suggested that the most important thing about GBS is that it has occasioned a great debate about the importance of copyright in the intellectual life of the nation (and the world). The legal wrangling surrounding the digitization of books in the so called Google Libraries may indeed midwife a re-examination of copyright issues on a grand scale. Certainly the current interpretation of copyright law in the United States is far more likely to be driven by supply-chain economics than by the intent of the framers of the Constitution. Perhaps for the first time, there are heavy hitters on both sides of the argument, which may result in a reinterpretation of fair use that makes more sense (to libraries and readers) in the digital age. One may hope.
Keller pointed out the importance of healthy competition among various digitization projects: the Million Book Project, GBS, the Open Content Alliance, the Microsoft/British Library and Microsoft/Cornell efforts. Could we have imagined anything like this rush to mine the library shelves of the world even a few years ago? Could we (the library community) have marshalled either the vision or the resources to accomplish the task on our own? It is unlikely.
On the dark side, he raised the image of libraries as herds of cows in these deals. Participants are kept in the dark, enjoined from sharing the details of their deals with other participants, let alone with their public constituencies. They (we) don’t know if they are being “milked, butchered, or destined to cover automobile seats of expensive cars.” [I paraphrase, but only slightly]
What is evident is that benefits for the G-Libraries are substantial. The libraries involved receive a windfall of the digitized contents of their collections (though, Keller also points out that much is likely to have to be recaptured at higher resolution in the future). For institutions of the caliber of these early G-partners, their technical wherewithal and innovative approaches promise rich research environments as well as new services to readers.
There are plenty of objections, of course, some with a Luddite feel, others based on money, control, cultural imperialism, disintermediation of libraries, and the hegemony of a colossus too large and too innovative to ignore. Publishers, authors, and librarians all have much to lose, but also many potential gains in how this plays out in the long run. It would seem that only for readers is the benefit clear and unambiguous. But even readers may lose in a world where any monolith controls access to the content, whether that monolith be a government or Google.
Mike Keller is an articulate spokesperson for the dilemmas and opportunities that are upon us. I found myself unable to resist most of his arguments, even a few I wanted to reject. Our community (or at least an elite component of it) has been offered a deal impossible to resist, a side effect of the inexorable march of digitalization that began in our realm with Henriette Avram’s vision of machine readable cataloging.
Most of our constituents will benefit greatly, while libraries will rattle from the footfalls of the Googles and their ilk. Still, I am unnerved that these developments are cloaked in non-disclosure agreements, even as I am excited about the extraordinary challenges and possibilities we face. Will cooperation within the community survive the Faustian bargains from without?
My thoughts here are almost certainly flawed renditions of Mike's remarks... I was jotting notes as fast as my dyslexic fingers would go, and trying to pay attention as well. Responsibility for distortions or errors are of course my own.
Image: OCLC at dawn