The Books Google Could Open
THE NATION’S COLLEGES and universities should support Google’s controversial
project to digitize great libraries and offer books online. It has the potential to do a lot of
good for higher education in this country.
The rapid annual increase in the number of new books and
journals, coupled with far-reaching technological innovations,
is changing relations between academia and the publishing
industry. In the recent past, college and university
libraries collaborated with publishers in creating online collections
of selected published works. But now many in the
publishing industry are opposing Book Search, the new digital catalog of published works created
by Google, even as it is being hailed by many librarians
as a way to expand access to millions of published works.
Many are opposing Google’s Book Search even as it is being hailed as a way to expand access to millions of published works.
Only a fraction of books published today is printed in editions
of more than a few thousand copies. And the great
works of even the recent past are quickly passing into
obscurity. Google has joined with major libraries to make it
possible for all titles to remain accessible to users.
Book Search is a Herculean undertaking, digitizing both
new and old works housed in some of the world’s top
libraries—Stanford [CA], Harvard [MA], the University of
Michigan, the University of California system, the New
York Public Library, and Oxford [UK]—and rendering them
searchable through Google’s powerful website. Book
Search d'es not permit users to read entire copyrighted
works on screen; it simply makes those works searchable
through keywords, quickly and at no cost, and allows readers
to view several lines from the book. Users can look at an
entire page from any book not under copyright protection.
This powerful new tool will make less well-known written
works or hard-to-find research materials more accessible to
students, teachers, and others around the world. Geography
will not hinder a student’s quest to find relevant material.
Libraries can help to revive interest in underused books. And
sales of books will likely increase as a result.
Book Search comes at a time when college and university
libraries are hard-pressed to keep up with the publishing
and technology revolutions. Budgets are stretched, and
libraries must now specialize and rely on interlibrary loan for
books in other subjects.
Student and faculty research also has been limited by
what is on the shelves of the campus library. A student can
identify a book through an online library catalog, but the
book’s content remains unknown. It must then be shipped
—an expense that may not be worthwhile if the book isn’t
what was expected.
With Book Search, it’s easy to imagine a history student
at a small college in Nebraska using the internet to find an
out-of-print book held only by a library in New York. Instead
of requesting delivery of the book, he or she can read a snippet
of it from Google’s online catalog and request it by interlibrary
loan if it seems useful. Even better, the student can
purchase the book in the same session at the computer.
Unfortunately, Book Search has vociferous critics. Some
publishers have filed lawsuits to stop the project, alleging
that Google is violating copyright law. Legal questions will be
settled in the courts, but those of us who are researchers and readers of books and articles ought
to be disturbed by the loss of trust
among publishers and libraries which a
decade ago embraced technological
innovation and collaboration.
Project MUSE, begun in 1993 as a
pioneering joint effort of Johns Hopkins
University’s [MD] Press and its
Milton S. Eisenhower Library, makes
available electronic “bundles” of current
issues of journals to students and
teachers in scattered locations. And
JSTOR—a coalition of
journal publishers and libraries formed
in the mid-1990s to create a reliable
online collection of hundreds of older,
little-used scholarly journals—has
brought these specialized works back
into common use.
Colleges and universities have con-
flicting interests in this dispute. Some
operate their own publishing houses
and hope to sell books. Some faculty
members are authors and hope to earn
royalties. But the major interest of colleges
and universities is as users of
information—helping thousands of students
and teachers find what they need
and making these materials available. In
this regard, the advantages of Google’s
service are enormous, especially for
smaller colleges without huge budgets
for library purchases.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time
that publishers have resisted an important
technology instead of figuring out
how to use it to advantage. Music publishers
a century ago tried to stop the
manufacture of player pianos because
they feared that sales of sheet music
would decline. In fact, player pianos
helped increase the number of buyers
of sheet music.
New technologies and new ways of
doing business can be disruptive, but
they are inevitable. The transition to
new technologies can be smooth or
rough, depending on the attitudes of
the institutional actors. The goal is to
make more of the world’s information
readily available to users.
Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.