Saturday, December 18, 2004

Library man hits out at Google

Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the American Library Association, is not impressed by Google’s plan to digitize millions of books, in association with five big libraries, in order to build an unmatched online resource. Writing in the LA Times, Gorman says:

I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge. I also favor digitizing such library holdings as unique manuscript collections, or photographs, when seeing the object itself is the point (this is reportedly the deal the New York Public Library has made with Google). I believe, however, that massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.

Gorman is building a straw man here. Google has never said that it intends to “supplant and obliterate” all previous forms of reading – instead, it is supplementing and enabling easy access to them. This is an especially valuable resource to someone like me, sitting in India, who does not otherwise have access to the best libraries in the world, and the books they contain. It will be a seminal service, like so much else that Google has done.

The internet’s biggest achievement, in any field, is to eliminate the middleman. Gorman, a librarian, is in many contexts the middleman between the books he guards and their readers. It isn’t surprising that he should feel threatened – but he need not worry. Google isn’t going to make him redundant, but is instead going to send more people panting to him, knowing just what they want and where to find it.

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