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The Evolving Google Library

May 21, 2009

To some, Google's mammoth book digitization project with university libraries is the ultimate combination of technology and scholarship, potentially making millions of volumes available to audiences that could never visit major research libraries in person. To others, the project represents a dangerous centralization and corporatization of content.

Complicating the debate (and obviously there are many viewpoints somewhere in between) has been an uncertainty about how Google would make the new library available. On Wednesday, Google and the University of Michigan announced new details -- and while the plan for pricing was still vague, the basics of the model became more clear.

Google is pledging free "preview" access to all books in the collection, inexpensive ways for individuals to purchase digital access to a full book, and pricing (based for postsecondary institutions on Carnegie Classifications) that would make it possible for colleges to buy site licenses to the collections. Google also says it is putting in place an arbitration system that will assure colleges that it will not overcharge for access. Some of the terms described by Google appear to be designed to win over skeptics in the library and publishing world, but some of those observers said it was too early to tell if the company had gone far enough, especially since it hasn't released some pricing details.

The announcement Wednesday was technically an expansion of Google's agreement to digitize millions of books in the University of Michigan library collections. The expansion was necessary to deal with Google's proposed settlement of copyright issues with a coalition of authors and publishers, as well as the issue of how Google will make books available. The official statement noted that the agreement provides ways for people at libraries nationwide to have access to the Michigan books in various ways, and Michigan and Google officials provided additional details in an interview.

Here's how the system would work:

  • Universities that have made parts of their collections available for digitization will receive deep discounts on access to the collection, or -- in Michigan's case and perhaps those of others -- will pay nothing for access to the collection, which currently has about 10 million volumes and could easily double in size. Every participating library will have full free access to digitized copies of all of the books it contributed.
  • For people at other institutions, a free "preview" of a book -- with about 20 percent of content -- will be available online.
  • Individuals will be able to purchase full access (but not download a copy) at prices that Google said would be inexpensive compared to regular purchase prices.
  • Colleges and university libraries could buy site licenses, with pricing based on Carnegie classification. While no scale was released, Google officials said that the goal of pricing would be both to provide appropriate recognition to copyright holders but also to ensure wide access to the collections.
  • Any of the universities that have provided volumes for the project will have the right to seek arbitration if they feel that the pricing does not reflect both of those principles.

Michigan was the first university to sign this expanded agreement although others among the 30-plus having books digitized are expected to follow, so the resulting offering will contain all of their collections combined.

Paul N. Courant, dean of libraries and a professor of economics at Michigan, said that "from Michigan's perspective, today we are giving much more access than we could before, but we're also taking much more access. We are gaining access to Stanford's library and Virginia's library and so many more." When the project is done, he added, "we will have created a grand collection of collections the likes of which has never been seen."

Dan Clancy, engineering director at Google, said that the company's plan is to have all pricing set to promote wide access. "Our goal is that every student in America can gain access to this resource," he said, noting that pricing for individual access would be inexpensive enough so that those at institutions without site licenses could still use the collections.

Courant said it was important to recognize the advance this collection will provide in making available materials that would never be in high enough demand to be purchased by libraries nationally, but that may be important to individual users. "A very large fraction of our books in any given year don't get touched," he said. But by being included in the Google collection, they can reach those who would never get to Ann Arbor.

Much of the skepticism about the Google project has been related to pricing, with libraries and scholars fearing that initially favorable rates might later become prohibitive.

Courant said that there were multiple protections against that. One is the arbitration process that Google has agreed to. The other, Courant said, is the free market. "There is nothing in the settlement that says these works can't be scanned again. Someone else can come and scan them," Courant said. "If the price on this is outrageous," he said, someone else will want to digitize the collections, and universities would probably be open to the idea.

One of the groups that has been worrying about pricing is the American Library Association. Corey Williams, associate director of the association's Washington office, said in an interview Wednesday that while many details remain unclear, the Google-Michigan agreement is "a step in the right direction with regard to pricing."

Williams said that the absence of specific numbers made it hard to judge the situation in any definitive way. Further, while she applauded the idea of letting libraries seek arbitration on pricing, she said that this provision applies only to those like Michigan that are involved in the project by contributing materials. "We think any library should have the ability to review pricing," she said.

While much of the Google discussion comes from those with strong feelings on one side or the other, there also are many in the library and publishing world who both worry about pricing and other issues and see significant benefits to the project.

Steven Bell, associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University, said he thinks Google is trying to respond to the complaints that have been raised, and that he doesn't think the Michigan announcement will make those issues go away.

"I don't think this new agreement with the University of Michigan is going to totally mitigate the concerns of the library community about Google's monopoly ownership of these millions of digitized books. There is still going to be a subscription cost to access the collection and there's no way of knowing how it's going to be priced or controlled and that's an ongoing cause for concern," he said.

At the same time, Bell said, that "since I find that Google Books can be tremendously helpful for my own research and for assisting library users, I believe it is preferable to have the materials than not having them despite some of the complications we are working through." He added that he remains "optimistic that this can be a good thing for the preservation and accessibility of these collections."

Others who see positive aspects of the deal are more pessimistic. Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College who has written critically of Google's role in digitizing books, said that she understands why Michigan sees benefits to the deal. "More people will be able to discover otherwise unsearchable content, orphan works will be given a cot in the Google orphanage, and books that the library couldn't afford to scan will be digitized," she said.

But she said there are other issues at play. "The tragedy is that a single and very large corporation has struck a deal with publishers that turns Google into a massive distributor, and though they hold non-exclusive agreements and tell others they're free to take on the legal risks Google did and reap the rewards, that's not feasible. They will be a de facto monopoly, and I think libraries and scholars and anyone who cares about freedom of information should push for a greater public good out of this agreement."

 

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