Google Books: More than Scanning

July 19, 2009

I think Cnet is owned by a larger media entity. Large media entities have their own DNA. When I see a story about Google Books, I step back and remind myself that the selection of a story is an objective matter, usually left to the writer and maybe the person who does a final review.

I found “Google’s Digital Book Future Hangs in the Balance” quite interesting. The writer, Steve Shankland, said:

Nobody in recent years has accused Google of lacking ambition, but its Google Book Search project is certainly among the company’s top projects when it comes to chutzpah. That’s not just because of the technical and financial hurdles of scanning, indexing, and displaying online millions of books, it’s also because of the tangled intellectual property and legal concerns involved in the controversial project.

I agree. The project is ambitious and interesting. Mr. Shankland continued:

What’s not to like for authors? Google Book Search gives them a way to sell books that are out of print, which today for them make money only for used booksellers. And through other provisions, students and other researchers would get access to vast online libraries at institutions that pay for subscriptions, and the public would get a Google-funded computer with free access to the same in every U.S. library.

He concluded:

Indeed, who else but Google has the capability to transport centuries of accumulated text into the digital future? Microsoft dropped its book-scanning project, and Amazon appears more interested in commercial transactions. The Internet Archive has hundreds of thousands of books available, but it doesn’t operate on Google’s scale, and the nonprofit group hasn’t pushed hard enough to try to break the copyright logjam the way Google has. Then, too, think of the consequences of Google controlling the content of the world’s books. Do you want the act of browsing the library to leave fingerprints in a server log, to become a transaction whose details can be revealed through a subpoena? Google has the best search engine, the most complete online maps, the most popular video site, and it wants to house your e-mail, spreadsheets, blogs, photos, and health data. Do you want Google to keep the keys to the world’s library as well?

Several observations about this long article which included a technical diagram of one of Google’s scanning innovations:

  • After reading the article, I wonder if the same issues will surface when Google moves into other media types, or is a library type of publication a special case?
  • If concerns are sufficiently high, will a fund raising initiative or a government action make it possible to put another organization in the role of Google; for example, the Library of Congress? The LoC may be one candidate, but other countries’ might have candidates as well that will move beyond highly specialized materials.
  • With the Book project now about six years old, will Google find supporters in the library and research community? If the project is killed or delayed, will an oligopoly emerge to do the work and sell the digitized access? Dialog Information Services and Lexis Nexis were in the pole position in the 1980s and might want to get that spot back again. Of course, the financial issues are different now than they were in the 1980s.
  • Will funding authorities increase the flow of cash to libraries so consortia could tackle the job and make the information in hard copy available to a wider constituency? Libraries are changing and some might be ideal candidates to tackle this type of scanning project.

I used to work for the “old” University Microfilms. I left the company before the implosion in the late 1980s but I learned that scanning is expensive, complex, and fraught with technical challenges. UMI made its Dissertation business work because student bought copies of their work for either work or personal use. The sale of Dissertation Abstracts indexes were long a staple of the research library community, but to make money with the business required a very sharp pencil.

Google finds itself in an interesting spot, and I was hoping that this article would have addressed the issue of Google’s doing what I thought the Library of Congress might have undertaken. Alternatively, I was looking for a mini case about how the scanning efforts of commercial outfits like UMI might shed light on the economics of the scanning business.

Quite a lot of information exists about scanning. Hopefully Cnet or one of the other serious Web information services will dig into the subject. As long as Google Books remains an issue for lawyers, I don’t think a full picture of the options, issues, and challenges will become available.

Stephen Arnold, July 19, 2009


One Response to “Google Books: More than Scanning”

  1. Going underground versus the database nation | on August 17th, 2009 8:48 am

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