Google at the Gate: A Quartet of Experts Assesses the Company's Ambitious Digitization Plan and Predicts What It May Mean for Libraries

American Libraries, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Google at the Gate: A Quartet of Experts Assesses the Company's Ambitious Digitization Plan and Predicts What It May Mean for Libraries


Now that the dust has settled around Google's much-ballyhooed December announcement that it would begin digitally scanning books from the collections of the world's major research libraries and make them available online (AL, Jan., p. 26-27), are the long-term ramifications for libraries any clearer? American Libraries Managing Editor Gordon Flagg asked four digitization authorities to take part in an e-mail symposium on Google's ambitious project.

Participants are: Michael Gorman, dean of library services at California State Library at Fresno; Deanna B. Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress; Susan McGlamery, project director for 24/7 Reference and global product manager for cooperative services for OCLC; and Ann J. Wolpert, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries. All were e-mailed a set of questions and invited to respond to each other's answers as well.

AL: Following the announcement of Google's digitization plan, librarians and others made sweeping claims for the project's impact. A month later, what do you foresee as the implications for the larger library world?

MARCUM: Having great numbers of books readily available on the Web will make searching for information much easier for many people. Libraries will be able to offer new, more-customized services to their users.

McGLAMERY: Google's digitizing initiative will decrease barriers of both access and retrieval to significant resources--which would benefit researchers as well as the general public. As with many digitization projects, disintermediation is a challenge. Ideally the project could incorporate a link back to the user's library, where researchers could obtain contextual information (and additional searching assistance if needed). Currently, Open World Cat records are linked with Google search results, and the Google digitization project presents another such opportunity.

GORMAN: Since scholarly books are, with few exceptions, intended to be read cumulatively and not consulted for snippets of information, making those that are out of copyright available by means of a notoriously fallible search engine seems to be, at best, a misallocation of resources.

WOLPERT: Google's initiative is a wonderful experiment. If successful, it will expose a wealth of historical print material to a worldwide audience of all ages. The sheer scale of the experiment will also spur additional research on search engines, highlight the challenges of preserving digital works, and draw much-needed attention to the dysfunctional aspects of current copyright regimes.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

GORMAN: With all due respect, this response is typical of many in that it contains numerous unverifiable assumptions. How will a "wealth of historical print material" be made available to the world? Any user of Google knows that it is pathetic as an information-retrieval system--utterly lacking both recall and precision, the essential criteria for efficiency in such systems. If you cannot find what you want and if you are lucky enough to find something, it is a paragraph or two wrenched out of context; where is the advance in that?

Also, no amount of "research on search engines" is going to overcome the fundamental fact that free-text searching is inherently inferior to controlled-vocabulary systems and will be so until we have computers with the capabilities of human brains. Google is supposed to have complex algorithms but still produces piles of rubbish for almost all searches. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.

What's more, this program will contribute nothing to the preservation of the human record. In fact, a scheme to transfer recorded knowledge from the stability and fixity of paper to the instability and mutability of digital records is a giant step back.

AL: Do you share some observers' concern that a for-profit company is poised to become the gatekeeper to the world's knowledge? …

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