Rory Litwin: Critique of the Google Library Project

My sister just passed on to me a scathing critique of the new project to digitize some or all of the contents of several major research libraries by Google (my own posting on this here). Rory Litwin‘s article, entitled “On Google’s Monetization of Libraries” has almost nothing positive to say about the project and fears that this will spell doom for librarians and the enterprise of truth and knowledge. I found the article completely unconvincing, even if it seems to be motivated by a healthy progressive librarian’s skepticism for mammoth corporations like Google and the darker side of capitalist markets. I address some of his specific points in this entry, but the article’s biggest weakness comes from an assumption that the libraries have sold their books and souls to Google and that this demonic internet giant can now proceed with the destruction of mankind’s common quest for truth.

I believe he is wrong on almost every count, although a final verdict on my own response will have to await more details about the specific agreements between the major research libraries involved and Google. He fails to fully recognize the fact that Google has not muscled its way into the stacks of Harvard, U Michigan, and others to rob them of their treasures – even if, as he says, Google’s “back-room deal” was “not worked out in cooperation with the [broader] library community”. It wasn’t, but it was worked out with a select number of huge libraries who are extremely protective of their holdings. These libraries are powerful agents in this discussion, and at least in Harvard’s case, hardly paragons of democratic virtue. Their key future role in this project are not sufficiently addressed by Litwin.

Overall, I think the article represents the last gasp of a bitter and dying breed of specialists who are either unwilling or unable to adapt to both the technological changes of our time, and on the theoretical level, the problematization of the Enlightenment project of progress and knowledge production. I’m sure that many others in the library community, or more broadly information and knowledge specialists, are more willing to recognize their own failure to enlist the massive public support and financial resources needed to digitize their holdings and confront the significant changes to their profession that a digital information world entails.

What gets lost in Litwin’s article, in which the shadow of a deeply commercialized and inequitable world of knowledge hangs over the pursuit of “truth”, is the fact that we already have a deeply inequitable world of knowledge. As a student at Harvard, but a former student of Columbia, Western Washington University and frequent visitor to Stavanger and Bartlesville libraries I can personally attest to the huge gap in access to resources, both digital and traditional. Harvard’s libraries have exceeded all of my expectations but I am only a very temporary guest at the table of its highly restricted library system. I feel a deep sadness that these resources are not available to everyone. I am delighted that Harvard and other similar institutions are opening up, and if it takes a massive corporation to help them take the first step, then I welcome it with open arms.

I seriously doubt that Harvard and the other libraries have signed away control to the eventual digital collections that result, and that we will likely see competition between commercial companies to provide access under some sort of licensing agreement, and potentially, a non-commercial public-supported alternative once the extremely expensive process of digitizing is complete. I believe that hosting such resources is less expensive than the massive investment of digitizing them, and it will be easier for the library community to mobilize behind a more modest public solution to the former (for public domain materials), than the latter. There will then continue to be room for commercial services which add additional features, for-pay access to copyrighted materials, and so on, as well as room for libraries to continue providing free access to those copyrighted materials they cannot legally host online.

As a side note, my own radical opposition to the current regime of intellectual property law also gives me hope that this will advance the revolutionary cause of copyright reform or, should that fail, at least the rise of a massive underground P2P market for huge databases of books and archives.

The appropriate response to the Google project is not a luddite call to arms, but reflection on why the library community could not launch a huge project like this themselves, followed by serious debate about how librarians can ensure that their considerable skills and knowledge will help guide the future use of these new digital resources, in whatever form they take.

Librarians have won incredibly important legal battles to protect equal and public access to (public library and archive) collections. Though some may not see it in these terms, they are in fact the guardians of a deeply socialist conception of knowledge as a public good. The sooner we get all of them on board for the next generation’s war to implant these values in the digital world and establish the legal foundations to protect them, the less likely that the commercialization of most human knowledge will become a real threat.

Since this posting has already grown a bit long, I’ll address specific points by Litwin in a future update to this posting.

One thought on “Rory Litwin: Critique of the Google Library Project”

  1. I don’t plan to really think seriously about anything until Christmas Day has come and gone and my belly is sufficiently stuffed with turkey and potato salad, so I will keep this comment brief (despite the fact that this article warrents a lot of comment and I can think of a lot of things to say). Beneath the babble of Litwins article are some legitimate concerns. I have difficulties with the speed of technological development and cringe every time something “new” happens for the simple reason that the same old issues (privacy, etc.) from before have yet to be dealt with completely. There is reason to be cautious. But as I understand it, in this particular situation, Google is paying for the use of their fancy machine to scan the collection, to make it digital. The library will then have a digital collection for their use, as will Google. According to library ethics, that collection will always be freely accessed. If Google decides to implement a pay per view thingy, then fine, but what’s the point if you can get it from the library for free.

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