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The Illusion of Google's Limitless Library
December 6, 2010 - 9:15pm

Google launched on Monday . They have a happy little video about it. It's all about choice! You can choose any book and read it anywhere on any device! Sounds pretty sweet. their e-book retail platform

But it's not quite true. Google would like us to think that they've digitized every book, that any book ever published that you may want to read can be plucked from the cloud and read anywhere.

But books potentially under copyright that Google scanned in libraries are not part of the deal. Those books are still tied up in a lawsuit and the settlement is kind of complicated and is likely to take years. And I hate to break it to you, but not every library involved in the project let Google scan in-copyright books, nor do academic libraries buy every book published every year. Most popular fiction, for example, won't be on academic library shelves so unless its publisher said so, it isn't in Google's cloud. In recent years, as more and more books are published, academic libraries have been adding fewer and fewer in inverse correlation to the price of Tetrahedron Letters.

Books published pre-1923 scanned in libraries can be downloaded through this ebook program. Of course, Project Gutenberg has let you download public domain books since the dawn of the Internet, just not on the same scale. (A recent e-kerfuffle: some enterprising folks have been selling Kindle versions of Project Gutenberg books, pocketing the change. Librarians are quite used to this; people repackage and sell public domain government documents all the time. Caveat suckers.)

Google offers "hundreds of thousands" of in-copyright books through arrangements with publishers. That's a lot - but nearly 300,000 books were published by traditional publishers in the US last year alone. And "anywhere" depends on where you are. I've been hearing all day from friends in New Zealand and Australia that "anywhere" doesn't include them. Kind of a strange definition of the word.

So for "anywhere" think US and for any device, think any device - except the Kindle - unless you're using Kindle's web browser, which obscures half the page with browser stuff. Oh, and don't forget that you have to be connected to the Internet to read these books, and where I live, that means I could only read a book only in certain parts of town, and never very far from the highway.

But still - choice! Freedom! Except ... well, of course you have to pay for these books unless they are in the public domain. And since five of the Big Six publishers are going with the "agency model," they set the prices, which can be fairly steep. Random is the only one of the Big Six holding off, letting retailers set discounts, hoping to gain an edge over the competition with the lower prices while the other five defend the industry from price points they find unsupportable.

I don't mean to sound grumpy. I like the fact that you don't need to buy a proprietary device to read these books, and that independent bookstores can now sell e-books through Google's platform. But I suspect I'll keep doing what I've been doing for years - buying enough books to put a dent in my savings, but borrowing most of what I read from the library. Given our robust statewide interlibrary loan system - which in these parts is more reliable and widespread than wifi - I have all the choice and freedom I need.

Of course, if libraries start putting most of their book acquisition dollars into e-books, that might change. Most publishers and vendors won't allow libraries to loan books to other libraries. But that's a worry for another day. Meanwhile, as I ponder Google's claim that "it's time to set your reading free," I'll go study Robert Darnton's "Three Jeremiads" and contemplate the peril and the potential of the moment. As he writes:

"We have now reached a period of fluidity, uncertainty, and opportunity. Things have come undone, and they can be put together in new ways, subordinating private profit to the public good and providing everyone with access to a commonwealth of culture . . . Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It’s an appeal to change the system."


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