The Great Equalizer
by Barbara Quint
about Google's library digitization project continues
to fill the electronic conversations and trade press
of librarians. Stephen Abram's "The Google Opportunity" in Library
Journal (February 1, 2005) challenged librarians
to rise to the occasion. "Google's new initiatives
are rocking our world. Here's how to rock back," he
proclaims, listing 10 key steps needed to implement
that transformation. But the next issue of LJ carried
a "Digital Libraries" column by Roy Tennant ("Google
Out of Print") that takes a far more skeptical tone.
Oddly, one of Tennant's caveats seems to stem from
a fear of success, a concern that Google's digitization
will lead to archives that are too complete and therefore
provide out-of-date material that would reach users
too easily. He even urges participating libraries to
prune their collection on the fly as they pass the
books over to Google's digitizers. I sympathize with
the problem Tennant develops, but not the solution.
Librarians have always had two primary missions preserving
all human knowledge and connecting users to the knowledge
that can serve them. Archiving and access are the two
ideals, but they can come into conflict. Librarians
troop forward whenever a battle against censorship
is fought, loyal fighters for the ideal of the right
of free expression, but when you think about
it every library is a living testimonial to
censorship. Librarians spend their acquisition budgets
and conduct their weeding chores with a strictly discriminating
eye for quality.
Google's idea of library collecting may indeed leave
too much second-rate material reaching too many users,
but if librarians work with them (as OCLC has already
begun to do), there may be new solutions that allow
superseded material to co-exist in a digital world.
One obvious, downright old-fashioned solution lies
in the words LIFO (Last-In-First-Off), first learned
from traditional online services. Display search results
by most recent chronological date first and that could
knock out some of the aging content. Building structures
into Google's library and nonlibrary content
that support evaluative assessments and arrangements
of content would often even more support. (I see a
world of Webliographers rising before me!)
There must be many new ways to solve this problem,
ways that would leave the earlier material still available
for new and unpredicted uses. For example, leaving
the outmoded material in play allows people to study
the history of thought, from the wrong to the right,
from the old to the new. Not that the new is always
right nor the old always wrong, but if you can't compare
them both, how will you ever know for sure?
Retaining everything gives you options. In a world
where the retention of everything saps budgets and
resources, choices become a necessity. It is the "economy
of scarcity," but with the Google project and
others like them in this digital millennium we
enter an "economy of affluence." If all material is
archived equally, we can begin working on access with
new tools and new infrastructures and new thinking
without the limitations of depleting our archival responsibilities.
One other comment turned up after the Google announcement.
A pro-Google colleague got into an argument with a
nonlibrarian friend about the exciting development.
The friend countered my colleague's enthusiasm by pooh-poohing
the value of the huge digital research library collection,
saying, "How will this help my daughter at a community
college?" When my friend repeated this remark to me,
I suddenly flashed back 3 decades to a meeting in the
small city of Santa Rosa, Calif. Those were the early
days of online. I was on a road trip one of
many urging librarians everywhere to grab hold
of the new technology and hang on tight. This technology
meant that all librarians everywhere, no matter how
small their operations or how narrow their constituencies,
had a chance to reach any source needed. Sure it meant
learning a new technology and it meant changes in budgeting,
but no longer did librarians have to operate out of
a fabulously funded library just to identify the best
answer sources. "Go Online Now!" was my message to
this group of public and school librarians.
One of the librarians in the audience disputed that
position. She said that online was not for her library,
that it only belonged in service to a research library
operation, like the one I worked at. She said that
her library just served a local community, one with
a largely low-income and non-English speaking minority.
I remember telling her that it was true that I served
a user base with a high income and an average education
of post-graduate degrees. But I still couldn't agree
with her rejection of the value of online in leveling
the playing field for information professionals. "Don't
people who are ignorant need more information, not
less?" I remember asking her all these years later.
I'm still asking. So someone goes to a community
college instead of Harvard or Stanford. Does that mean
that the knowledge in the libraries of those universities
should be denied them? If Google completes its planned
project, those collections and those of other research
libraries will explode the ability to deliver content
wherever anyone could use it. And the community college
student would seem to have even more to gain than the
student already on a rich university's campus. And
how long will the hierarchy dividing the community
college student from the top university student exist
when distance learning builds its channels on the foundation
of a massive digital research library?
More important, what about after both the university
and the community college student go out into the world?
Don't we want their interest in knowledge of all kinds
and on all subjects to grow and expand and diversify
throughout their entire lives? Wouldn't access to grand
and glorious library collections help make that happen?
What a brave new world we could be making! Sometimes,
when I'm musing, I think of the 1.3 billion people
living in China and ask myself, "Why can't any of them
sing like Luciano Pavarotti?" (Alright, alright, maybe
I should lower the volume on my Muse button.) Probably
some of them could, but until they hear Italian opera,
how would they know to try? Knowledge, stored and delivered
to the world everywhere, and the world will sing.
Online is still the great equalizer and getting greater
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is email@example.com.