Monday, April 28, 2008

Should Google Be the World's Librarian?

Book Search is a portal that Google, Inc. is developing to provide access to all the world's books in digital form. How many is that? If you count editions (not individual copies), a recent Associated Press article about the project says there are between 50 and 100 million books in the world. The largest research library that I deal with on a regular basis, at the University of Texas at Austin, has only eight million of these. So clearly, Google will have done a great thing if and when it finishes—although with new books coming out all the time, a project like that is never really finished.

At first glance, this sounds like a great step forward in the history of information, on a par with the invention of printing. There are many parallels between the two events. Before movable type made it possible to produce thousands of identical copies of a manuscript, hand-copied books were rare, expensive treasures that only the wealthy and powerful classes could afford, by and large. But once Europe had dozens of print shops churning out books and pamphlets by the hundreds, prices came down to the point that artisans, shopkeepers, and even some farmers and peasants could afford them. You can make arguments that the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution all depended vitally on the invention of printing.

However, there is one critical difference between the invention of printing and what Google is doing. Print shops, publishers, and the whole network of book production, distribution, and the libraries that developed to house them were under the control of a diverse array of entrepreneurs, private organizations, schools, and governments. On the other hand, Google is, well, Google—a single, monolithic, centrally controlled corporation. Is there any ethical problem with that? It depends.

One thing that may be in danger is what I would term the universal freedom of library access. At any university library worthy of the name, anywhere in the world, any person can simply walk in and look at the general collections, generally without charge. And if you can produce scholarly credentials, you will usually be allowed to examine even the rarest items in their collections, under proper security controls, of course. The only limitation (and this is a severe one, admittedly) is that you have to travel physically to the library in question. But once you're there, you're in.

We have already seen how many internet firms have submitted to the will of dictatorial nations in exchange for the privilege of operating there. In my Mar. 30, 2006 blog, I criticized Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft for kowtowing to the government of the Peoples' Republic of China by restricting users' access to certain sites that the government deemed objectionable. Surely the books and other published works of Chinese dissidents will not be welcome there in electronic form any more than the people themselves, many of whom have endured long prison terms or even death for the "crime" of expressing their opinions.

But that is only one example of how Google, or any entity which has exclusive legal rights to the propagation of large amounts of information in a single medium, could distort or restrict access to the written heritage of the human race.

Am I being paranoid in sensing the potential for some sinister goings-on? I do not presently attribute evil or malign motives to Google, but sometimes things that look good to start with have bad unintended consequences. All I'm saying is that letting a single firm be in control of the way most of the world will in the future access its own written heritage, is at the least an unprecedented step, and potentially a very dangerous one.

The management of Google may all be nice folks now. But what if China gets more prosperous and has so much money in its government-controlled stock investment option that one day it hauls off and buys Google? Sounds ridiculous now, but if you had said in 1965 that in forty years, General Motors would be a money-losing basket case and Japanese car makers would beat them in worldwide sales, you would have gotten peculiar glances then too. Then China would get to say who gets access to what—an eventuality that few people would enjoy or benefit from.

My point is that the concentration of information control in the hands of a few is something to be regarded with caution, to say the least. Same goes for news media, but here we're talking a lot more than just news media—the intellectual heritage of the entire human race is at stake.

Do I have any suggestions? Well, no, in this case I'm just trying to get the ball rolling on a discussion. Even if I owned stock in Google, I have no illusions that they would listen to my opinions about their project. But if we're going to go ahead with this thing, we should at least go into it with our eyes open—as long as we can still see on our own.

Sources: The Associated Press article by Natasha Robinson on Google's Book Search project and its efforts toward the preservation of historical books was published in numerous venues. I saw it in print in the Austin American-Statesman (p. D3 of the Apr. 28, 2008 edition), and a version is accessible online at


  1. One could generalize the argument that there should be a limit to the size of any organization that has power over those not in that organization. This would be true for any organization, whether corporation or institution. If there are competing organizations then they will tend to check the power on each other. This competitive "checking" has a side effect of preventing organizations from becoming too powerful for their own good. Of course, for this to work there has to be a "superior" organization that provides the rules for the "inferior" competing organizations to follow. And, of course, "who watches the watchers?" which basically is an unsolveable problem.

  2. Am I being blue-eyed when suggesting that the UN could very well be the watchers of the watchers? As far as I can tell, the United Nations is the closest thing to a universally accepted moral institution that humans have come up with so far, and their various suborganisations do indeed exert quite some influence on economic processes (WTO and WHO, namely).
    In fact, if the "Absolute Library", which is as exhilarating as it is frightening in the hands of Google, were a United Nations' project (which would make sense, I believe), wouldn't the worries fade and the excitement prevail?