The Googlization of Everything
In my last post on The Googlization of Everything, I summarized the concept of public failure in my last post; the most important point to be made about this is that Google, with its staggeringly ambitious mission to make all the information in the world accessible, is taking over some functions that should be done publicly and not by a commercial entity. This is why we have libraries and universities, which are funded by the public and which are at least theoretically pursuing the public good.
Google recently shut down its News Archive project, which was focused on scanning and indexing old newspapers. I was disappointed to hear it, because many of these newspapers really aren’t available elsewhere. At my institution, we rely on LexisNexis, which goes back to 1980. Before that, all we have is New York Times Historical, which is just the NYT, and a bunch of microfilm, which is not searchable. So, I’d been referring students who want newspaper sources on historical events—and yes, students do want this—to the Google News Archive. I considered it one of their more useful projects. However, they don’t seem to consider it one of their more profitable projects and have discontinued it. This is one of the problems with relying on a commercial entity; they will stop doing anything if they decide it isn’t worthwhile, and their definition of worthwhile is based not on, say, scholarly, archival or long-term cultural value, but on whether they can make money from it. So smaller projects like this, and in particular projects that are for this sort of audience, are always at risk. This is my small example; Vaidhyanathan uses Google Books and Google Scholar, which are much more important and used by more people.
Vaidhyanathan asks some important questions about this state of affairs:
The question is not whether Google treats us well but whether this is the best we can do. Is the system, as Google has designed and governed it, ideal for all parts of the world and all segments of society? Is it durable and extensible over the long term? Will it let us both preserve and create? Will it let us filter wisely and connect widely?
Certainly, all of these are questionable. If Google is interested in “facilitating consumption” and if their style of doing business works best for privileged communities that are built around things that are fun, then it’s difficult to answer these questions affirmatively. As for all the questions about preservation: it’s difficult to trust any for-profit company to do preservation, because we cannot rely on their continued interest or even existence. In particular, if all this information is centralized in one physical location and in a digital format, that’s very dangerous.
He goes on to recommend the building of a Human Knowledge Project:
In a sense, we missed an opportunity. About the same time that Google started, we could have coordinated a grand global project, funded by a group of concerned governments and facilitated by the best national libraries, to plan and execute a fifty-year project to connect everybody to everything. At least we could have executed a plan to digitize the major collections of a hundred or so major libraries around the world and unify the works under a searchable index. We could have launched something like a “Human Knowledge Project.” Now, a dozen years later, it’s harder to do that. But it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s still necessary if we want to pursue the dream of a vital global public sphere.
Now, I have to admit, I read this and I feel both very excited and very skeptical. Will it include non-public-domain works? If so, um… how? How will such an initiative really be funded? I’m not sure the concerned governments are quite concerned enough to do that. If we just want an index, how is that different from WorldCat?
But at the same time: YES. This is fantastic and I want to work on it. The problem is that nobody can agree on how to do it. Several initiatives have started recently to think in this direction… Open Library (Internet Archive-related), the Digital Public Library of America (Harvard-related), Library Renewal (a nonprofit organization based around public libraries), and a couple others.
Are these initiatives the Human Knowledge Project? Vaidhyanathan seems to be on the board for DPLA, and in his talk at ALA he mentioned “initiatives like the DPLA,” so… maybe? The curious thing about the DPLA is that it’s come under fire for not being public enough. At the same time, it’s certainly the one that’s gotten the most attention lately. I should have asked him about it there; eventually I’ll get over my desire to have the perfectly phrased question, but I’m shy and it’s difficult. In any case, I’ve subscribed to its listserv and it is fascinating, but there’s little agreement on what, exactly, this is going to be.
It seems clear that if these things really have a chance, if we can really take important and scholarly and not commercially useful information and make it readily available to everyone, then this is a very exciting time to be a librarian. Not only that, but if this is really going to go somewhere, then it is the most important news in the library world, without hyperbole, and we all ought to be working on it together. And I need to actually take the time to see if there’s anything that I (and I am nobody in particular) can do to help. But with librarians it can sometimes be difficult to get everyone working in the same direction.
Now what this really needs is to get together with the Open Access movement. Hmmmm.
Oh, one more thing: I’m deeply appreciative of the fact that this book, written by someone who is not a librarian, comes down squarely in the corner of libraries and the mission we try to support. That, too, is exciting to me.
(As I read over this, it seems more and more as if I should have posted it to my professional blog instead. Considering cross-posting… I need to figure out what I think about that.)