Sunday, December 19, 2004

Libraries and the Web

On Tuesday, December 14th, Google issued the following press release:

As part of its effort to make offline information searchable online, Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) today announced that it is working with the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford as well as The New York Public Library to digitally scan books from their collections so that users worldwide can search them in Google.

"Even before we started Google, we dreamed of making the incredible breadth of information that librarians so lovingly organize searchable online," said Larry Page, Google co-founder and president of Products. "Today we're pleased to announce this program to digitize the collections of these amazing libraries so that every Google user can search them instantly.

"Our work with libraries further enhances the existing Google Print program, which enables users to find matches within the full text of books, while publishers and authors monetize that information," Page added. "Google's mission is to organize the world's information, and we're excited to be working with libraries to help make this mission a reality."

For more details, see this article from the December 14th New York Times. This is, of course, an extremely positive development. Anything that makes libraries and library collections more visible and accessible is to be welcomed. But, it is important not to overstate the implications of this project.

First of all, this does not mean that every book held by each of these libraries will be available to read online. Several of the libraries are only having portions of their collections digitized. The main obstacle, however, is copyright law. Only those books published before 1923 will be available in full text. The others will only have bibliographic information and sample pages, similar to what you find at

Secondly, this does not mean that the paper book is coming to an end. Daniel Akst, writing in the December 17th Wall Street Journal, states that "Google's plan drives a giant nail in the coffin of paper books. Right now, it is true, e-book sales remain negligible. But just as electronic payments are gradually superseding paper checks, electronic publication will gradually replace paper books--especially in a future of portable, easy-to-read electronic tablets and near-ubiquitous wireless Internet access."

With all due respect, this is nonsense. Making books available online is a tremendous development and greatly aids the research process. However, it remains far easier to read large amounts of text from a paper book than from a computer screen. The era of "easy-to-read electronic tablets" is still a long way off. As mentioned above, copyright law is another potential obstacle to this brave new world. While I can see technologies such as print-on-demand growing enormously, the simple, reliable, user-friendly paper book will still be with us for a while.

Third, this agreement represents not so much a revolution as simply a continuation of pre-existing trends. There are already sites such as Project Gutenberg and Bibliomania that offer free online access to the full text of non-copyrighted works. Nearly 2/3 of new US government documents are published online through resources such as GPO Access and Thomas. Libraries themselves have begun to digitize certain parts of their collections, the Library of Congress' Making of America project being the foremost example among many. The Google initiative will greatly expand and accelerate these trends, and this is to be applauded. But the agreement is taking libraries in a direction that they were already headed.

Libraries are no longer the dry, dusty places of stereotypical lore. Librarians have been grappling for the last decade with the implications of the World Wide Web. Electronic article databases and online catalogs have revolutionized the way that library research is done. Patrons can now do research using the library web site, without having to set foot inside the building itself. Libraries are in the process of transitioning from being storehouses of physical collections to becoming virtual gateways to electronic information resources.

This agreement, however, does not mean that libraries no longer matter, far from it. One pernicious side effect of the World Wide Web has been the belief that "everything is available online". I can assure you that this is far from the case, especially in regards to scholarly and research resources. The Google initiative will help to remedy this situation, but it won't solve the problem. There is a great deal of useful content on the web, and sadly an enormous amount of junk as well. Sorting out the former from the latter can be a difficult task. While the web is a tremendously empowering tool, it can also be bewildering and overwhelming. Libraries and librarians are ideally suited to serve as guides to this virtual flea market of information.


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