Time Well Spent in our Digital Evolution
It’s been over nine months since we first posted here in opposition to the Google Book Search Settlement. For a while it was a lonely business, taking on the power and popularity of Google. Now, with the notification period about to end, it is gratifying to see how many people and organizations have come together to question the terms and implications of the Settlement. The list of concerns and problems is now so extensive—and so well reported and indexed—that there’s no need to list them all here.
But I would like to emphasize what is the most important issue to me: I believe the proposed Settlement will have a chilling effect on building free and open digital libraries. Should the Settlement be approved, Google Book Search becomes a commercial digital library without serious competition. There is certainly a place in the world for its digital library, but, to me, there’s an even greater place in the world for free and open digital libraries that are numerous, de-centralized, distributed and, most importantly, continuous with the values of our public library system.
This Settlement will not help to create such a system. It nurtures and deepens a licensing culture that is harmful to the library system; and, while exploiting the long and deep investment of libraries in their stewardship of books, it depends on those same libraries to fund its business model without ensuring adequate safeguards to prevent price gouging. Instead, it builds a centralized library under the control of one private corporation accountable first and foremost to its shareholders and one registry motivated by profit maximization for rightsholders who come forward. Are these the best circumstances in which to gain access to the written record of the 20th century in book form?
Robert Darnton, who was privy to the Settlement negotiations, supports our position. In his new book, entitled The Case for Books, he writes: “The more I learned about Google, the more it appeared to be a monopoly intent on conquering markets rather than a natural ally of libraries, whose sole purpose is to preserve and diffuse knowledge.”
One of the positive outcomes of the past nine or so months is that awareness has been raised, coalitions have been formed, fervent discussion has occurred, and much ink has been spilled on the very knotty problems around the digital stewardship of our cultural heritage. Given all that I’ve seen and heard in the past year, I am now vastly more hopeful that we all might come together to work toward a truly open library system for the digital age. I hope Judge Chin finds merit in the many objections that have been filed and that a better, more collective and democratic solution to the challenges of digitization can be found.
Google has helped us all by showing how achievable and inexpensive mass digitization is. Maybe somewhat in reaction to Google, hundreds of libraries are digitizing in ways consistent with the tradition of libraries. I am optimistic that we will prevail in building free and open digital libraries.