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Magazines > Information Today > September 2016

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Information Today
Vol. 33 No. 7 — September 2016
What’s Next for Google Books
By Barbara Quint

Hats off! Heads bowed! A simple genuflection or two wouldn’t be inappropriate either. Here comes Google, back from the legal wars, victorious! Google Books has had its legitimacy certified by the highest court in the land. Millennia of human thought, human history, and human intellectual achievement are safe, ready to progress into the third—and digital—millennium.

Whew! I thought for a while there that the myopic tunnel vision of gimme, gimme personal interest and a collapse of the professional service ethical standard (which requires information professionals working in any and every setting to at least dream and, if possible, strive to serve as many people as they can) would defeat the most magnificent and visionary effort to bring the knowledge of the past into the future. Well, the attempt to stifle human intellectual exchange across the ages failed. Google and humanity won!

Or have we? Although I think Google should be the universal recipient of any award out there—a Nobel Prize, Congressional Medal of Honor, Hall of Fame enshrinement—our giant do-gooder friend has a slightly terrifying habit of losing interest in things. When it strays outside its core web search service, which it does more and more these days, it can end up playing with anything shiny and new. Driverless cars come to mind. As James Grimmelmann pointed out in the May 11, 2016, issue of Publishers Weekly (“Hail and Farewell to the Google Books Case”):

The great irony is that books have become something of an afterthought for Google. Today, Google Books is a bit of a ghost town. The Google Books blog, and Google’s library newsletter were shut down long ago. And the leading visionaries behind Google Books have all moved on to dream other dreams.

Digital Doesn’t Die

Humph, you may say. What else could one expect from a Publishers Weekly article? But Grimmelmann also points out that Google Books has inspired strong successors. (In fact, one might wonder why the great research libraries of this country and their professional organizations did not initiate a Google Books-type effort all on their own. But let’s not nag.) He says:

If the breathtaking ambition of the Google Books settlement was its undoing, however, such ambition also galvanized new thinking about how to carry forward the centuries of our cultural legacy locked away in print. The HathiTrust, a coalition of research libraries, used the digital copies Google gave back to its members to provide full-text digital editions to print-disabled students, for example, setting a new standard of inclusive access. The Digital Public Library of America now brings together librarians that want to do everything they can for public access to books within the confines of current copyright law .

And things could get even better. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to work for a serious revision of the copyright law. A program called TVEyes that grabs up television and radio news broadcasts and makes snippets text-readable will probably be citing the Google Books case. At least Fox News thinks it will and is arguing already that the case does not apply.

Bottom line: Digital doesn’t die. Digital stays in play for good or ill. Let’s make sure that it’s for the good. What new benefits could we see from Google Books? They could happen at any level: for individual searching, at knowledge institutions such as in academia, or industrywide. For example, as an individual, I’d like the ability to just click once and have my search—or all my searches—include Google Books. Maybe Google Scholar too. I could turn it off for searching local services or maybe have a separate search identity for those.

Silo of Books

If I were an academic or public librarian, I would love to see a set service that supplies all libraries with all public domain items. I hear OCLC already has a cataloging effort applied to Google Books. But then I’d want the find or search feature integrated with any e-book service to which I already subscribed. Of course, if publishers were smart, they’d make sure that Google Books has all their content—and I do mean all—just to protect it and would then work out new ways to make revenue. However, if publishers prove recalcitrant or addicted to denial-of-service, dog-in-the-manger pricing, I’d like Google to push aggressively into the self-publishing market. It has the platform. Everyone knows the company. I could see a cottage industry of editors, print-on-demand services, and social network advertising growing rapidly. Imagine all college textbooks and academic publishing houses as prime targets. They could integrate with the Creative Commons generous copyleft standards. Speaking of integration, for those academic librarians, integrating Google Scholar would make a world of good sense.

As for industrywide, well, a moment of silent sorrow, but if Google does walk away from the magnificent silo of Google Books, it should look for another knowledge farmer to sell it to. To let 20 million digitized books molder would be a sin against humanity.

Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher. Her email address is Send your comments about this article to