On Monday I attended a talk sponsored by the Center for History and New Media and the Visual Knowledge Project on Google’s plans to digitize essentially every book in several major university or research libraries (Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, New York Public Library). The speakers were Clifford Lynch from the Coalition for Networked Information and Jonathan Band, an IT lawyer specializing in issues of digital copyright. I was pleasantly surprised to see something like 75 people show up for what could be construed as a fairly obscure topic.
Why would so many people show to hear two experts desclaim on digitization, copyright and Google? Despite the speakers’ overall positive take on Google’s project, I think the size of the audience was, at least in part, a reflection of the unease many people feel at the idea that a small number of corporations (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo in particular) will have such a prominent role in the creation of digital versions of the intellectual product of our society.
Others were there because Google’s project poses a particular interesting challenge to existing copyright. Essentially, as Lynch pointed out in his remarks, Google is arguing that it is okay to build an access apparatus without permission of the copyright holder. Thus, when Google scans a book that is currently in copyright and posts snippets from the book in their search database, they have made limited access to copyrighted material available without permission of the copyright holder.
I think this concern of the copyright holders is overblown. My first attempt to use Google Print happened last week when I was trying to locate a copy of the James Thurber story, The Dog That Bit People so that I could read it to my children. Via Google Print I was able to get to page 1 of the story, but that’s all we could see–not very satisfying to my children–and so my only option then was to click one of the links on the left of the screen and order the book online. I did, thereby verifying that the new business model works, both for Google and for the copyright holder. I could have waited and gone to the library and picked up a copy of the book, but, sitting there at the computer with my boys, I decided to go ahead and order it up asap. I don’t see how the copyright holder was harmed by this transaction, do you?
Still, many in the audience, me included, couldn’t shake the worry about what happens when libraries begin deciding that once they have a digital collection, why do they need to use up all that space taken up by the stacks? Why not pitch the books and use that space for income producing classrooms? For those who want to dismiss this as alarmism, I would submit that this is already happening. With the advent of JSTOR, more and more libaries are pitching their journal collections. Sure, sure, various library consortia are keeping sets of these journals in storage, but for how long?
In the end, I suppose we’re going to be better off with all this work digitized. For one thing, it takes away my students’ excuse for not doing library research. With all those library books online, they won’t be able to hide from scholarly monographs any longer.