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Magazines > Searcher > April 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 4 — April 2005
The Great Equalizer
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Chatter 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fear of success, a concern that Google's digitization will lead to archives that are too complete and therefore provide out-of-date material that would reach users too easily.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many users, but if librarians work with them (as OCLC has already begun to do), there may be new solutions that allow superseded material to co-exist in a digital world.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 every day.

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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