Email discussion on the recent Google Books copyright decision

An interesting, overlapping discussion about the recent Google Books copyright decision took place on the Progressive Librarians Guild email discussion list and the Social Responsibilities Round Table discussion list over the past few days. I have permission from the participants to reproduce that discussion here. I used to do this frequently with the original Library Juice webzine but have done so only rarely in the past few years. This thread may see some invited comments as a follow-up.

Shouldn’t librarians’ enthusiasm about this be tempered by the understanding that Google is not the do-no-evil corporation it once represented itself as being?

We have much evidence of how the profit-making corporation is not operating strictly in the public interest, never mind in ways entirely consistent with librarians’ code of ethics. I won’t review this here, but I am sure most of you are familiar with the record. In any case, Google’s attempt to present its book project as being an attempt to create “the world’s largest library” should certainly give us pause.

Am I the only one here to wonder , given what Google does in collecting and cashing in on data about users’ browsing what they will do with the data from the book search? Am I wrong in thinking that now they will know, in addition to our other browsing activity,  not only what books we are looking at but what we are reading in those books? There are other aspects of this project too which deserve more critical examination.

What do you think?

Mark C. Rosenzweig
co-editor, Progressive Librarian

Thanks Mark!  Not only do I wonder about that, I also think about the fact that so many colleges and K-12 schools have embraced “Google Apps for Education,” meaning that not only does this for-profit corporation have increasingly profound access to our reading habits, but also to our documents storage and communications.

I  really have to wonder where the ALA Washington Office gets the idea that “libraries” consider this a great victory. Or where they get the OK to sign on to alliances with Google in the name of the association and the profession.

The issues involved are matters of some contention among librarians , there is no consensus, but somehow the Washington Office seems to think it is “speaking with one voice” on our behalf.

We need a much more robust debate in the Association about the implications of monopolistic tendencies in corporate domination of information and, indeed, the entire human record.

Mark C. Rosenzweig

Dear Mark

The Washington Office’s infatuation with Google has always baffled me, as is the idea that this is a ‘victory for libraries .’  A company that exists to sell advertising (a global Leopold Bloom), to cosy up to authoritarian regimes, and to peddle the personal information of millions has won a court case that will add even more to their zillions of $$s.  Meanwhile, libraries limp on, underfunded and undervalued.  What a victory!

Michael Gorman

Library colleagues:

I just wanted to point out that I, as a researcher and cataloger, have benefitted tremendously from the results of Google Books. I can’t imagine ever uncovering certain citations or facts had these documents never been digitized and put on the public web. I can tell you from professional experience, it is transforming the speed, accuracy, and depth of original cataloging. Does that mean that I love Google, or think that it is noble? No. But under capitalism there are some developments that serve the broader public as well as the corporation. This is one, and we should appreciate the fruit of that contradiction.  

I don’t know if some of the libraryland hostility is because this was done by a corporation or if, in concept, mass digitization is a bad idea. As with the earlier furor over JSTOR, it’s important to remember that these companies do not retain exclusivity over the content. In a perfect world, such a project might have been undertaken by a consortium of universities – but that didn’t happen. And I’ll bet that references to obscure publications are driving up book sales and library usage, not curbing them. I know that I’ve bought more than one used volume because it came up in Google Books. How about you?

yours in struggle,

Lincoln Cushing

Thank you for another good observation. I think , as libraries, especially K-12 public school libraries and public libraries and library consortia, especially medium to small size libraries, find themselves with dwindling budgets, dwindling staff, dwindling services and dwindling stature and status, as essential capital assets for the community good, Google is increasingly looked upon as the salvation for access to information. Sadly, this happens at a time when I think our profession became much more conservative in its worldwide view of things. Yes, thankfully, there are still librarians motivated by a strong socially responsible ethic. However, I feel that number is also among the things dwindling in our societal responsiveness.
I would _LOVE_ to hear what younger, and new members of SRRT have to say, but again, sadly the number of students joining SRRT has been dwindling for quite some time, and I think that number is getting to a point where it must be addressed in the near future.
The primary reason why we should be concerned about Google? Mark said it succinctly in noting that things, “deserve more critical examination,” and one of those things needing examination is ALA’s fiscal relationships with Google. Perhaps the situation is much worse, and “everyone” feels Google has so saturated “the markets” than most ordinary people just no longer care and use it, and use, and use it. The Wal-Mart model: You have to use us, especially when we take away all your alternatives.
Fred Stoss

I’m not a “young” librarian, but if 44 years of age qualifies as youthful in any context, I’ll take it as compliment. I am a recently enrolled member of both SRRT and PLG, and I look forward to renewing my membership in these organizations for years to come.
What compelled my interest in social responsibilities and progressive librarianship was a quote by then President Maureen Sullivan who, in the March 18, 2013 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education said: ‘It’s important to remember that there is a difference between the work and role of the teaching faculty…and the work and role of librarians.’ When one recalls the fact that Ms. Sullivan at the time was doing consulting work at East Carolina University where the university administration was deciding to end tenure for librarians, her words seemed especially suspect. Many of my colleagues sent a letter to ALA headquarters demanding that Ms. Sullivan clarify her statement. In response, she updated her Facebook page to say that she supported the Joint Statement on the Status of College and University Librarians (2012). Many librarians on this list may recall that the original 1973 Joint Statement defined librarians as equal to faculty and deserving of tenure whereas the 2012 revision defers to policy set by local administrative authority. In sum, Ms. Sullivan clarified her position by endorsing a document that blurs the line between due process (tenure) and at-will employment. Our responses to this turn of events ranged from cynical acceptance to bemused disdain. Granted, we did not expect ALA to act in the role of a labor organization. Yet we did not believe that ALA would actively collude in the de-professionalization of librarianship itself, either in word or deed.
You could say that we were naïve.
In the months after this episode, I investigated the opinions and writings of other members of the ALA hierarchy, both past and present, and was bowled over by the sheer volume of corporate-style discourse that passes for critical thought among the most esteemed members of our profession. I always had the impression that the management literature in librarianship was positivist, rationalist, and prone to technological utopianism. But the scale and depth of what is termed by John Buschman and others as ‘neoliberal reason’ in librarianship is so widespread and deeply rooted that it presents an existential threat to the mission of our profession. We may be witnessing a transformation of librarianship from its traditional democratic values to a monetized, market-oriented, agile enterprise that harnesses human capital to maximize ROI in a competitive and customer-driven environment. (Say that three times fast).
And we see elements of this “belief system” at work in the unreservedly positive response to the recent Google books ruling. The ALA leadership seems to have forgotten that Google is a corporate entity, and thus may have interests beyond altruism. Moreover, as you point out, both the ALA and the public at large have embraced Google as “the salvation for access to information”. Indeed, if one reads the amicus brief filed by the Library Copyright Alliance on behalf of Google you will note that on page 4 the heading “GBS Serves the Public Interest”. What follows is a passionate infomercial asserting the essential goodness of Google’s digitization project. A project which, once the Authors Guild is assuaged, will result in the largest known searchable corpus of texts in English hosted on the privately owned servers of a corporation which bases its business model on deriving revenue from the aggregation and monetization of user data.
But if rank and file librarians cautioned the ALA leadership against their credulous assertion that a corporation can serve the public interest as well as—or even better?—than the cultural institution known as “the library”, would those leaders listen? My own personal experience, and the work of Buschman, John Budd, Ronald E. Day, Douglas Raber, Christine Pawley, and many others predict that such concerns would be blithely dismissed.


Michael Matthews

As a younger librarian (I’ve been in the profession only since 2009), I think I do have a slightly different viewpoint on this case. To me, it’s not really about Google. It’s about asserting fair use, and the parameters of fair use. It’s asserting that enabling the kind of access to texts that Google (and Hathi) are enabling is fair use, and does not violate copyright. And I think THAT is why I see this as a huge victory. 

The kind of access scholars can have to our literary corpus now is amazing, and I get very excited when I think of the kind of work in the digital humanities that can happen, and about how scholarship, especially in the fields of English and Literature, will be changed. 

I think this case is a positive development in a string of copyright decisions that have tended to limit the kind of access we can have to our cultural heritage. And I can’t help but feel good about that. 

Laura Krier

Here’s a short reply to Mark and Kathleen’s comments to my Google Books comment the other day.

I’m not going to get into a big thing here. I’m not saying “What’s the problem” or that those who are critical of Google Books have no grounds to complain (although I was not that shocked by Nunberg’s article; cataloging is one of those professions where you pretty much get what you pay for, and since this cost libraries nothing I’m not surprised that there’s crappy metadata.) Corporate-driven incursions into library practices should always be inspected for lice. As I learned when Nicholson Baker wrote Double Fold and evoked a firestorm of libraryland protest, this is a profession that has trouble dealing with criticism. As with microfilming and newspaper disposal decades ago, new errors were made at high levels with Google Books.

But the notion that Google has cornered the market on our intellectual heritage neglects the huge amount of material that fell outside of their scope.  Underground newspapers? Brochures? Political posters? That’s up to us.

What’s missing here is, what are the alternatives? How can we support non-profit, public access ventures that do this better? There are several, and I consider the giant online poster archive I’m building through the Oakland Museum of California as being one. There are others.

And to Kathleen’s point, we need to reinforce better pedagogy and research practices. Bad metadata in Google Books? Expect that. Use it as a starting point, not the end. If you want to beat up on low hanging fruit, take a whack at Wikipedia. Research and scholarship are ever evolving.

The genie’s out of the bottle, we can’t put it back.

Lincoln Cushing

Google is interested in redefining the infosphere in its own image and for its own purposes. The sheer size, power and influence which Google has achieved make it , not one of many tools, but the framer and decider of the form and content of bibliographic –and, moreover, informational– reality. It is not , as Lincoln would have it, a genie out of the bottle, ready to do our bidding if we but know how to wish wisely and ask properly. Nor is it something we can just ignore as we cultivate our own little islands of bibliographic quality.

To take just one aspect of the problem, Google Books  , in its rush to complete Google’s domination of the infosphere, is recklessly creating a bibliographic muddle whose junk bibliographic information is crowding out the results of the scrupulous efforts librarians have made over centuries to bring bibliographic order and rationality to the textual universe. Google is creating pseudo-editions of already published works, replete with false attributions and incorrect meta-data,  rife with countless uncorrected scanning errors which obscure and distort the meaning of texts –all of  which mistakes, note well, becoming part of the permanent bibliographic record – illegible, scrambled and illegitimate bibliographic garbage polluting the information pool because of Google’s disregard for, nay, contempt for, bibligraphic integrity.

As for the judgment of the court in the recent case of the Authors’ Guild v Google, we can argue, of course, about the correctness of its interpretation of “fair use”. But I am struck by the insensitivity of the library community to the case of authors and their publishers. Google, in any case is not interested in the “fair”part of “fair use”: it will force the law to conform to its projects’ demands because it can, because it has the power, and it is doing it, not in the public interest, but in the corporate interest of Google.

The colonization of the infosphere and the cannibalizing of the bibliographic record, these are the hallmarks of Googlization. What can we do about it as librarians? Lincoln Cushing suggests there is precious little we can do. We should just make th ebest of it. Well, we can at least ask our Association to not make common cause with Google in legal cases! The so-called “fair use” case of Google is questionable enough for ALA not to have felt compelled to side with Google against authors and publishers rights. That it did so only expresses to me a craven and pathetic hope that siding with the giant is going to somehow prevent the giant from eating us up and spitting us out.

Mark C. Rosenzweig

The bibliographic inconsistency of the database and its quality are indeed unfortunate, as is the fact that it is controlled by Google and not the institutions that own the material: some materials I needed for my history thesis required multiple searches for different issues of the same periodical. Once I did find them, because Google owned the digital copies, the universities that provided the print copies couldn’t give me even temporary access to the digital copies, so I had to go where paper was kept anyway.

However, IMO the missed opportunities go back farther than this court case.  Had the large research institutions implemented the project themselves and retained control, its development would have been slower, but the quality problems Mark mentions would not have developed.  Had the profession been able to embrace and integrate information technologies to such an extent that we merged rather than separated completely from the technicians, network admins and coders, we’d be on the cutting edge rather than the trailing.

Given the state of the project and our profession, perhaps as Lincoln’s message implies, the best we can do at this point is make good use of it. Metadata, anyone?

Another thing we can do is continue to explain the intricacies of fair use: people always want simple answers, even though there aren’t any.  

We’ve also had some success advocating for privacy–we can and should keep doing that, as the unprecedented access of this monolith to our reading, recreation, research, writing and other communications makes that effort increasingly vital.


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