This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Christopher Allen Waldrop

10 January 2005 — In 1997 I attended a talk about the future of libraries and the Internet. It was the first time I heard it suggested that the Internet could potentially replace the traditional library: With the increasing availability of information online eventually there wouldn't be a need for a physical library building to hold books and periodicals.

It was suggested that this change could occur in as little as ten years, but so far it doesn't look like that's going to happen. In spite of the increasing availability of information in electronic formats no one's rushing to turn the local library into a golf course; in fact in the past decade many cities and universities have purposely invested in new buildings or renovation to accommodate new technology, as well as more books. If anything technology means new opportunities for libraries.

Still some librarians worry that the Internet's going to put them out of a job. The recent beta testing of Google Scholar, and the announcement that Google Print would be working with libraries at Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, the University of Michigan, as well as the New York Public Library hasn't done anything to help put those fears aside.

However the reality is much more complicated.

Even though their new products are being billed as attempts to compete with Microsoft and Yahoo!, Google is also threatening to step on the toes of companies that serve libraries almost exclusively. Proquest, Ingenta, H.W. Wilson, and others already have searchable databases of full–text periodicals and abstracts. Meanwhile publishers, including Elsevier, John Wiley, and Blackwell have created similar full–text databases of their own periodicals.

The disadvantage for libraries is that these products require pretty hefty subscription fees based on different factors such as number of users, the number of titles the library subscribes to, or even the number of hits. For library users there's an even more important downside: these databases are designed for scholarly use, and since no two are alike there's a learning curve with each one.

The beauty of Google is its simplicity; it's like a virtual reference librarian. Ask Google a question, and while it won't give you an answer it can help you figure out where to go.

Google Scholar would seem to be Google's answer to the periodical search engine, although it's already been hit with a lawsuit for trademark infringement by the American Chemical Society which has a product called SciFinder Scholar. The lawsuit is still pending, and Google seems set to step in and give libraries exactly what they need: a free resource that provides the greatest possible access to information.

The catch, in addition to Google being cagey about its definition of "scholarly," is that users get a mixed bag of hits. Sometimes there's a link to a full–text article, but users are just as likely to get a search result labeled [book] and a link to search by zip code for the nearest library with that book in its stacks.

Even more frustrating is the label [citation], which may mean ³book² but doesn't include the library search option. And while it's possible to find article citations there's no guarantee a user will get a full–text article. In most library databases users can limit their searches to full–text articles, so unless they just want citations they're better off using one of those.

Google Print will theoretically take things a step further by making whole books available to users through a simple search. However Google's digital library project doesn't necessarily provide any better benefits than going to a library's web catalog. Although their press release says, "With the addition of books from our library partners, our book selection will continue to increase, and you'll also be able to find out of print, rare and public domain books," the emphasis should be on public domain books. As the "About Google Print" page explains, a book will only be available in its entirety if it "has no copyright restrictions and is considered public domain."

In a clarifying e–mail to me, they added, "We'll also show a few pages from books when we have an agreement to do so with the publisher." Google is soliciting the cooperation of publishers with the promise that they'll increase their books' visibility and attract customers, as well as earning money from ads targeted to their content. It remains to be seen how many publishers will go for this, or how much money there really is to be made. Meanwhile the University of Michigan and Stanford may digitize their entire collection, but only public domain books will actually be available online. This isn't to say Google's entirely bad.

In many ways Google is expanding the traditional library's boundaries but keeping the ideal of making information freely available to anyone. The increased emphasis on scanning books will, hopefully, push this technology and make it cheaper, faster, and more effective. Space and time have always been the biggest enemies of libraries, and scanning means versions of the most rare and fragile documents can be made freely available while the originals are kept in controlled environments. It may even be in Google's interests to help libraries fight legislation like the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act and its restrictions upon the public domain.

On the other hand, Google is a profit–driven corporation, whereas most libraries (including the ones currently working with Google) are non–profit. Since Google's revenue comes from selling ads it's not clear whether search hits will lean more towards results that push products.

And although remote, it's also a possibility that Google will exercise editorial control, restricting access to information at the behest of advertisers or shareholders. The quantity of information available may make such control impossible, but it also means that users won't necessarily know when access to information is being denied.

Many librarians believe they're competing with and losing against search engines like Google, that for most users the convenience of a simple, clean interface outweighs the quality of the quality of the results. Whether this is true or not Google's digital library project is an opportunity for libraries to remain competitive by working with the competition. For the sake of users, and their own future, libraries just have to make sure they're taking advantage of the opportunity and not being taken advantage of.

Librarian CHIRSTOPHER ALLEN WALDROP is the Serials Coordinator at the Vanderbilt University Library in Nashville, Tennessee.

Previous column; BLUE CHRISTMAS ... Booksellers are reputed to be stallwart lefties, but guess who "the world's biggest bookseller" is giving its corporate donations to.

©2005 Christopher Allen Waldrop


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.