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Magazines > Searcher > September 2009
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Vol. 17 No. 8 — September 2009
Librarians and Google
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastThe other day I was chatting with a friend and colleague (vendor variety) about this and that and I chanced to mention Google. She paused in our conversation and sighed musingly, “I love librarians. The only ones still saying, ‘Watch out!’”

Huh? Librarians as the last resistance force to Google’s world dominance? A valiant band of foolhardy but gallant militia persons, hopelessly outnumbered and engaged in one last stand doomed to failure? Perhaps some day, future generations will look back on these heroic losers and paraphrase the inscription on the monument to King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae: “Go tell the Spartans, you who read/We took their orders, and lie here dead.” “Read,” “Dead.” Those words don’t rhyme. And, I fear, something else doesn’t sound right — at least to me — about librarians as Google’s enemies.

It’s not like I haven’t heard the worries expressed before. At a Google-sponsored press webinar I attended some years back, a gentleman with a heavy Japanese accent posed a provocative question to the founders (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) and the CEO, Eric Schmidt. In halting language, the inquirer asked, “You say you do no evil, but all those who do evil say they do no evil. How do we know you do no evil?” I don’t remember the exact language of whichever founder answered the question, but the gist of the response was that it would just be too risky. Sooner or later their evil-doing would be found out and it would cost them the trust of their customers and louse up their business. A policy of “doing good and doing well” has been so successful for Google that those in charge would be fools to fiddle with it.

Call me naïve, but I tend to believe them. Of course, we all remember Lord Acton’s words of wisdom: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But Alexander Hamilton, one of this nation’s founding fathers, once advised, “The best insurance for the fidelity of mankind is to make their interest coincide with their duty.” In other words, if you can set up a system that ties doing good to profitability, you could have enough security to place some trust in the players and the game.

Frankly, when it comes to possible chicanery, I’d keep a closer eye on Google’s less-successful competitors, particularly in a tough economy, when management might begin to think that survival depended on cutting ethical corners. And even if Google did decide to embark on some more aggressive policies, I would think enterprises would be its target rather than innocent end users. After all, as Willie Sutton, the noted bank robber of the 1930s, reportedly replied when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.” Current announcements and product releases show Google heading after Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office while still fending off any chance of success by challenges to their search dominance. At this point, its defense seems built not only on improving algorithms and constructing more appealing research results, but also on constructing content silos reaching beyond the open web. Google Books, Google Scholar, Google Maps, Google Images, Google This, Google That … The big guy just doesn’t quit.

But before we all get caught up in that Acton quote, let’s take a closer look. If Google is doing something wrong, call them on it. Of course! That’s our job as librarians, to defend the welfare of our clients, to push for the truth and against the false or the half-true. But when Google does something right, the same ethical principles of our profession require us to defend them. And in that context, let’s look at Google Books. The American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries filed an amicus brief in the current Google Book Search settlement case. I tried reading it, but you can get whiplash from the mood swings in the document. Talk about a love-hate relationship! In the middle of praise comes dire warnings; in the middle of dire warnings, kudos. But when the dust clears, Google is doing a job that no one else has stepped up to do.

No one, not even Google’s founders, could know better how essential it is to the future of the human mind to move the recorded history of human thought into the digital medium toward which all eyes are turning; no one could know that better than the directors of the nation’s leading research libraries. The accumulated budgets of ARL’s libraries run into multiple billions each year. Rough calculations from some figures posted as part of the Google Book Search case put the cost of digitizing 7 million books in the program as around a quarter of a billion. Even if it were twice that much, can you tell me that ARL libraries couldn’t have skimmed off that amount over a 6-year period if they really set their minds to it? Would it have been difficult? Absolutely!! Politically dangerous? Certainly!! But impossible? I don’t think so. And if they could have, whatever the great effort it would have required, they should have. The bottom line remains — and here comes the last quote of this piece — “Put up or shut up.” If you can’t do a job that needs doing, get out of the way of whoever can.

If you’re still worried, here’s a thought. Google has become a basic utility that the public relies on for essential services. If it ever started getting frisky, maybe the federal government could regulate it. Now there’s a comforting thought.

— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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