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Magazines > Searcher > February 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 2 — February 2005
Tick, Tock
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

We've all known in our hearts that it was coming. Some of us have looked forward to it with near-parental pride. Some of us have turned our backs, stuffed cotton in our ears, and covered our eyes with both hands (but those in that position can't possibly read Searcher magazine). Some of us have wavered, winced, and worried, but held our ground. Whatever our responses, all information professionals have known that the Universal Virtual Library is growing out of the Web and its search engines and that, some day, this emerging phenomenon will threaten and finally engulf the world of traditional, brick-and-mortar libraries.

What we didn't know was when it would happen. What we didn't know was whether some of us could make it to retirement before the bell tolled for our day jobs. What we didn't know was how long we had before we would need to acquire new sets of skills to perform new sets of tasks and maybe even start looking for new employers to reimburse our new roles.

Well, now we know. We have till 2011 — 2015 at the latest. The timeline comes from the announcement of a new initiative by — need you ask? — Google. Everyone has been wondering about what Google planned to do with all that lovely new IPO money. Apparently one of its planned expenditures includes taking over the book content of libraries. One assumes that Google expects the open access movement assailing scholarly publishers will inevitably bring the periodical portion of library collections to them in time as well.

Google already had a Google Print beta in place offering to digitize out-of-print and in-print books from direct arrangements with the world's publishers. [For NewsBreak coverage, see "Google Print Expands Access to Books with Digitization Offer to All Publishers,"] In December 2004, Google announced an expansion of the program to include the digitization of all or portions of the book collections at five of the world's leading research libraries — Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University's Bodleian Library. [Again, for details — and, immodestly, I would claim more accurate coverage than you may have seen in other sources, check out two NewsBreaks — "Google and Research Libraries Launch Massive Digitization Project,", and "Google's Library Project: Questions, Questions, Questions,"] Oh, yes. If you thought that Google wasn't ready to handle scholarly journal content, you might want to take a look at the beta of Google Scholar. [For information on that development, check out "Google Scholar Focuses on Research-Quality Content,"]

Estimates run that it will take Google from 6-10 years to complete its program. No one can say for sure, but at the end of the process, Google will have a content collection that will enable it to offer unmatched depth to all the people now budgeting for brick-and-mortar libraries. Of course, you'll hear the usual bleatings — "But people don't like reading electronic books. It hurts their eyes," "The library is more than books; it's a meeting place; it's an experience," "Some libraries may be hurt, but not mine. We're different." And then there's the prayer for deliverance, the hope that someone out there will stop the ax from falling. The most probable candidate for the role of knight-errant would seem to be the book publishers whose copyright Google is — at first glance — ignoring as it sweeps through multi-million book collections, swallowing the in-print, out-of-print, in-copyright, out-of-copyright. But it looks as if publishers are just going to stand still and take it. In the course of working on my two NewsBreaks covering this story, I had a 40-minute conversation with Patricia Schroeder, executive director of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the leading trade association for the publishing community. She said that none of her members had indicated any intention of litigating, nor did the AAP have any such plans.

I could go into detailed predictions as to why this will play out successfully. I could point to the fact that this does for book publishers what they couldn't do economically for themselves, i.e., digitize their backlists, convert all their copyright holdings into salable items, and advertise all their products on page one of Google search results in a special Google Print sidebar — all at no cost to themselves. I could point out how Google's digitization project will give them a body of content that blocks rising competition from Yahoo! and Microsoft, while still satisfying their company mantra of "do no evil."

But why bother? We searchers have been down this road before. We've seen the word processing on the wall. The oldest of us remember when print proponents told us that online databases would never replace printed indexes and abstracting services. Then there were those who predicted end users would never do any serious searching on their own, just use the Internet for e-mail and chit-chat. And how about all those who said that Web search engines would never threaten library reference desks? Where are these naysayers now?

Even if Google fails to pull off all it has promised, the world has seen the new possibilities. If Google does not finish the task in this decade, it will in the next. Even if Google abandons the project, someone else will pick it up. Newspapers and trade magazines all over the country have picked up the story, and most have recognized and discussed the threat it poses to traditional libraries. The coverage of the story has become a phenomenon of its own, creating another instance of the "revolution of rising expectations." At this point, it's only a matter of time.

So, what's next? Where will we go and what will we do when we get there? Before we board the bus to the future, let's take one last look around. Since the library at Alexandria was built around 300 BC, librarians throughout the centuries have striven to preserve all the knowledge of humanity and to make it accessible to the people of the world. Well, task completed. We can now pass the torch to our cheerily colored friends at Google. They will assume the archiving tasks and bring unimaginable new levels of access to all the information we have collected with such devotion. And a special hats off to the librarians partnering with Google in this new endeavor. Heroes, all!

So, again, what's next? I am already in the grip of visions, visions that will undoubtedly spark future articles in this publication. One overriding vision emerges first. Whatever we do and for whomever we do it, we must design our tasks under the principle of Do-Once, Serve-Many. We must look beyond constituency limitations. We must create products and services that can meet the needs of all users of the content inside those products and services, not just that of our immediate constituencies. That will mean designing or joining projects that integrate and network with others working the same or similar content, the same or similar users. It will mean creating products that can reach the largest number of people. It will mean working with vendors, particularly those with the largest user bases. (Ahem, are we talking Google again? Probably. Although Google's competitors — Yahoo! and Microsoft — would seem logical candidates, if only because of the support they might be willing to provide in an effort to combat the big G.)

We must recognize that the weight of the future may collapse the structures of the past, that the systems we have relied upon to filter and measure and archive and distribute quality information may dissolve and leave us floating in a sea of disparate data. But the same dangerous future also will provide the tools to build new and better systems, tools open to new players — like us. We information professionals, we librarians, we searchers can become the new publishers, the new aggregators, the new library-to-library-to-the-world vendors. Above all, we must recognize that new tasks abound and, now that we are freed from shelf patrol duties, we're the ones to do them.

But we only have 6-10 years to get in position. So MOVE IT!!!

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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