Is Google a Threat to Libraries?

Imagine a world where one entity controls all of the information that you see. The one entity can decide that you should be sheltered from certain information, or could surreptitiously alter information. The entity can decide what price you pay for information at will. No, this isn’t a fascist regime or even Orwell’s dystopian paranoia, this is conceivably our digital future, thanks to Google.

Nobody’s saying that this will happen for sure. After all, Google’s motto is “don’t be evil,” but I attended a lecture that suggested that this was a possibility.

Yesterday evening I hied myself up to Columbia University to listen to Robert Darnton speak on Google, Libraries and the Digital Future. Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library at

Darnton & an analog book from the distant past.

Darnton & an analog book from the distant past.

 Harvard University, gave an impassioned lecture about Google Book Search and what it might portend for the library in the future.

Some of what he spoke about can be found in his February 2009 article from the New York Review of Books entitled “Google and the Future of Books.” Google Book Search, the initiative to digitize and make searchable millions of books from the world’s research libraries, will change the way we read, search for and gather information. Digitizing and making books searchable sounds wonderful–what’s the threat?

It’s not free, and it seems that Google never intended it to be.  

Google has won a settlement (subject to approval from the US District Court for the Southern District of New York) over copyright with authors of some of the books that have been digitized. 

In order for the authors to get paid, Google had to set up a Book Rights Registry, which represents the rights of the authors. Google will sell access to the databank of mostly out-of-print books to libraries, who will have to pay for an institutional license (much like article databases). Consumers can also pay for individual licenses. The copyright holder will get 63% of the revenue, and Google will retain 37%.

Sidestepping for a moment the outrageous effrontery of Google selling libraries’ own books back to them, Darnton’s point is that Google is the only entity with the foresight, power and capital to undertake such a huge project, and because of the nature of this settlement could eventually result in Google having a monopoly on the world’s information. The law suit was a class-action suit, so that it basically covered every author with a work in copyright. Therefore, authors are left in an opt-out situation, without ever seemingly having the choice to opt IN in the first place. If their book is in a library that has agreed to Google Books’ offer to have their collection digitized, it will be digitized, unless the authobigbrotherr expressly opts out. Even more daunting: no other digitizing initiative can get their project off the ground without, as Darnton puts it, “winning their (the authors’) assent one by one.” So this settlement, if approved, basically gives Google the rights to digitize every book covered by copyright in the United States.

What could this do to the library? Libraries would be in thrall to Google, subject to their pricing structures, to enable them to provide their users with, as Darnton puts it, “the world’s largest book business—not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon.” The cynics would ask whether, with Google Book Search, we’ll even need physical libraries anymore. Google Book Search, after all, is a library.

People will be watching to see what happens on October 7, when the settlement goes to court. In the meantime, Google continues to digitize books to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed, possibly scaling totalitarian heights that even Orwell couldn’t imagine.


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