Category Archives: e-books

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.


Books? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Books!

bedoyaI opened my email on Friday morning to find an email from my niece about an unbelievable article in the Boston Globe. My niece, also a librarian, was disturbed by the article and the subject line, “Is this for real!?” exposed her utter confusion. The message said that she felt that she’d woken up in an alternate universe when she opened her paper that morning, and the story left her depressed and speechless.

The article, entitled “Welcome to the Library. Say Goodbye to the Books,” is about a private school, Cushing Academy, near Boston, that got rid of all of their books and replaced them with 18 Kindles and three large flat-screens displaying “data from the Internet.” They replaced the reference desk with a $50,000 coffee shop that includes a $12,000 cappuccino maker. It will no longer be called a library, but will now be referred to as a “learning center.” The headmaster of the school, James Tracy, says, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.’’

I’m sure that Mr. Tracy means well. I’m sure that he didn’t give away their 20,000 volumes frivolously, and I’m sure that he believes that he’s doing his best to prepare his students for a digital future.


I posted the article on my grad school’s listserv and got a flurry of responses. The responses were mostly outraged, but a couple–from a professor, no less–were relatively, though not entirely, supportive of the school’s bookless initiative. Some of the concerns mentioned in the responses were:

  • Loss of the serendipitous find. Remember looking for something specific in a library, and accidentally coming across 2 or 3 more items that would either help you with your research or teach you something new? No longer possible without books–or, not in the way it is with books, I should say. Most of the responders believed that kids would really be missing out without this factor.


  •  Respondents felt that they were going too far, and missing an intermediary step, where books peacefully coexist with technology. They thought that with this type of scenario, students would enjoy the best of both worlds…and this is what modern libraries today strive for, in most cases.
  • Respondents were concerned that the students would be lost when they entered college. Would they know how to do real research without having had the benefit of information literacy, which is not mentioned in the article? Would they be thrown when they don’t find Kindles everywhere?


  •  There was concern that the “library” as a whole might become obsolete if this model were to become the norm. The professor thought that this was the overweening concern of the article, saying that a “library” is an ideological concept and not a physical structure. He believes that the ideology and the structure are becoming increasingly incompatible, and that the physical structure may not be the best “technology” to achieve “library” anymore. He thinks that librarians should get over their book bias.
  • Respondents discussed their experiences with research and talked about the pros and cons of databases vs. print resources. The age of the respondents probably explains a lot about whether they preferred electronic resources over print. But the consensus, generally, is that both are needed at this point.
  • There is also a fear that if other schools see this as an option, they will follow suit. But it remains to be seen if this sort of drastic measure will be successful yet.
  • A respondent was eager to point out that at least they hadn’t gotten rid of any staff, which is good news in an age of lay offs and library closings. It was also mentioned that at least the school was generously funding the new “learning center,” which is also good news for the same reason.

The future is knocking on the door, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before many libraries go this route. But, in the meantime, should we take such a drastic leap yet? Can we, or should we, take our time, easing people into the digital age? Are we experiencing the “birth pangs” of library 2.0 (apologies to Condi Rice)?

CNN writes about this recently in an article entitled, “The Future of Libraries, With or Without Books.” The article, taking a deep dive into what the library of the future might be like, using examples from today, explains how the role of a librarian might change:

In a world where information is more social and more online, librarians are becoming debate moderators, givers of technical support and community outreach coordinators.

They’re also no longer bound to the physical library, said Greenwalt, of the library in Skokie, Illinois. Librarians must venture into the digital space, where their potential patrons exist, to show them why the physical library is still necessary, he said.


What, Really? Wow!

I’ve been away from the blog for over a month now. My sincere apologies–I took a little summer break. While I wasshocked gone, there have been several things that I’ve seen and wanted to write about, but I just didn’t. So, here’s a quick little compendium of exciting items that have occurred that deserve more real estate than I’m giving them, but I’m sure enough has been written already without my adding too much hackneyed commentary. So, here goes:

1. Razorfish (which I just discovered today has been sold to Publicis!) has just published a fantastic study on how social media influences purchasing decisions. As far as I know, this is the first of its kind and will likely be discussed by marketers for years to come. Especially marketers looking to understand how social media can be measured. You can access the study by clicking here.

2. On the same tip, AltimeterCharlene Li’s  blog, has recently reported the release of a study that Li co-wrote with Wetpaint. The study shows the correlation between social media engagement and a brand’s financial performance. This is another one for the history books, and another one that marketers can point to when trying to make a case to management for getting involved in this new media space. 

3. Free, by Chris Anderson was released online for the low, low price of…well, guess. Learn more about the book by listening to Anderson discuss it in this podcast.

4. Inmagic, a database software company that has its products in places like libraries and NASA, is poised on the cutting edge of social knowledge management.  After the SLA Conference at the end of June, Inmagic blogged about the different ways the information revolution was being dealt with by SLA and by Enterprise 2.0, and how to bridge the gap. This short and poignant piece is very telling and shows why Inmagic is leading the way in social librarianship.


5. Last but not least, this story was in the NY Times today, on textbooks of the future. The article says that California and a couple of other states are beginning to experiement with digital textbooks. I am all for the digital revolution, but where do we draw the line? There are pros and cons on both sides of this issue–I’ll just mention one of each that occurred to me. Pro: Easy updating of information that would quickly be outdated in paper textbooks. Con: Easy revising of history, for evil, not good. Plus, where is the permanence? And how can we ensure that the important info will be saved in a format that will be easily accessed later? What about the digital divide? Do kids without computers at home just not get to study? OK, that’s more than one con, that’s several. Still in the early stages, this initiative will need careful consideration. Plus, isn’t California bankrupt? Where are they getting the money for this sort of thing? 

Hoping to be back again in short order. Until then…

Kindl-ing Affection For E-Books

The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking article on How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write. (This link will probably expire shortly, considering the WSJ’s policy for selling their archive.)

kindle_booksIn the article, Steven Johnson explains how he believes that the book’s migration to the digital realm will affect the way humans read, write and sell books:

“It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.

There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?”

The answer to that question is, “probably not,” because, if a digital book were printed out, it would probably look like the original manuscript for On the Road, but with variations. In other words, as the author of the WSJ article continues,

“The Kindle doesn’t even have page numbers — it has an entirely new system called “locations” because the pagination changes constantly based on the type size you choose to read. If you want to write a comment about page 32 of “On Beauty,” what do you link to? The Kindle location? The Google Book Search page? This sounds like a question only a librarian would get excited about, but the truth is, until we figure out a standardized way to link to individual pages — so that all the data associated with a specific passage from “On Beauty” point to the same location — books are going to remain orphans in this new world.”

A colleague points out that chapter numbers don’t change, and paragraph numbers don’t change, so if one wanted to cite a specific passage from an e-book in the future, it might  look like:

Smith, Zadie (2005). On Beauty, (ch 3, somewhere within paragraph 12). New York: Penguin.

Yes, he’s probably right. Only a librarian could get excited about this stuff. But that’s why the world needs librarians. When you migrate information to a system that ostensibly makes that information infinitely more searchable, it only makes sense that the information should also be more findable!

This is where librarians come in – not only developing policy to enable users to find digital information, but also ensuring that the information is properly searchable. It’s not the end of librarianship, it’s the end of librarianship as we know it.

Here’s what we do know: print is in trouble.

For this reason, more publications are going digital.

So, what we can do is join in the dialog and become essential parts of the migration. We can help make things happen. And therefore, ensure our place in the history of the digital migration. Because, as Steven Johnson puts it, this is nothing less than a revolution – something on par with the invention of the printing press, which changed the way we gather, store and process information forever.

This is the “AHA” moment: the digital revolution.