The buzz about Google Book Search (GBS) seemed to be dying down but then suddenly there are four articles in a week. Regardless of their numbers, behind the news stories work no doubt continues full tilt to realize the settlement’s potential. I just want to find out how the story ends. If there were a last page, I would have turned to it a long time ago. If I could fast-forward 5 or 10 years, I would.
The January 5 NYT article by Motoko Rich, Google Hopes to Open a Trove of Little-Seen Books [sorry, I would link to it but NYT insists I register or login to access the article (it's 8:14 PM) and I don't do that kind of thing], included a really nice statistic that hints at one important aspect of the story’s ending. Or maybe it’s just a beginning. The stat carries a lot of the load for his story about tapping “a trove of information that had been locked away on the dusty shelves of libraries and in antiquarian bookstores.
According to Dan Clancy, the engineering director for Google book search, every month users view at least 10 pages of more than half of the one million out-of-copyright books that Google has scanned into its servers.
Google’s book search “allows you to look for things that would be very difficult to search for otherwise,” said Mr. Zimmer, whose site is visualthesaurus.com.
A settlement in October with authors and publishers who had brought two copyright lawsuits against Google will make it possible for users to read a far greater collection of books, including many still under copyright protection.
Read that again, the part that says that “every month users view at least 10 pages of more than half of the one million out-of-copyright books that Google has scanned into its servers.” Wow. Think about what that means for the life of most books on our “dusty shelves.” Actually, we don’t let them get dusty, at least not so far.
The overwhelming majority of our books can start up their long-silent engines and back out of the dead ends their normal commercial lives rolled them down. People are searching online, books are coming up high enough in the search results that people see them, and they are clicking on those book links and using even public domain works. I’ll dare to say, people seem to be reading public domain (ie, really, really, really old) books. At least 10 pages of over 1/2 of the million public domain books so far digitized — every month.
So, if you work in a library, take an old book off a shelf, any old book, and open its front cover and see how often it was checked out in the last 5 or 6 decades. Pick another book. And another. You can see where I’m going with this. I think these GBS “uses” are a wonderful thing for books, for their readers, their authors and, when we can get in-copyright works, their publishers or other copyright owners.
But Rich goes on to note how troubling this may be as well:
Some scholars worry that Google users are more likely to search for narrow information than to read at length. “I have to say that I think pedagogically and in terms of the advancement of scholarship, I have a concern that people will be encouraged to use books in this very fragmentary way,” said Alice Prochaska, university librarian at Yale.
Yale’s many libraries are fantastic places and all its librarians are lucky to work there. Alice, I think I understand what you are saying here, but look at those stats. People may not be reading Jane Austen cover to cover in GBS (maybe they are, maybe they are not), but isn’t the possibility that a book that rarely would have come onto the radar screen at all has such an amazing chance to be found by someone and used for something, isn’t that a good thing?
Surely Alice does not mean that books should be enjoyed a certain way or not at all. Maybe she worries that the numbers of people who read cover to cover will diminish. Or that people will “cite” a book for something that a more thorough reading might not support. But I don’t think that’s how it’s going to work. Exposing books to search brings them to the attention of a much bigger audience then they could ever have on our shelves. Among the many people who will discover a book on GBS, a percentage, let’s say a small percentage, will not just look at 10 pages. A small percentage will download the whole book and read it, or substantially all of it, cover to cover. These are people who never would have known the book existed except for having found it in a search for something else on Google. We will add these readers to the ones who come to the book from other, more traditional, perhaps scholarly, places. Scholars must stay within ethical bounds when they cite authority for other reasons besides the inability to find material with a narrow search. So, if a much larger percentage of those GBS readers who discover the book will not read it cover to cover or cite it at all, so what?
Neither the book’s author nor the librarian who collected and protected it for decades can know what use someone not of our time, or our culture, or our values might have for a book that the author wrote to be read cover to cover. But we can take pleasure in the idea that people will use books in ways we never imagined. Isn’t anything better than being parked and forgotten by most everyone at the dead end?