A Place for Google Books in Critical Information Studies?

By theo_walther

Having worked at the New York Public Library since January 2010, I was only around to see the end of the library’s active partnership with Google on their ambitious Books project. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to recount the entire history and controversy surrounding the Google Books project, from its informal beginnings in 2002 to today. However, I will try to place the project and the NYPL’s participation in context, but more importantly consider whether such a project could be a beneficial tool for use in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s concept of Critical Information Studies, as well as whether it would raise his concerns about copyright issues.

Google Books began with the idea of doing nothing less than scanning all of the world’s books and making them available and searchable online. Work on the project began in secret in 2002. A small group visited some of the more notable, existing digitization projects, including the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project, Project Gutenberg, and the Universal Library at Carnegie Mellon University, to see how they worked and the challenges they faced.[1] Google co-founder Larry Page also reached out to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, site of digitization projects such as JSTOR. When told it would take an estimated 1,000 years to digitize the university library’s seven million volumes, Page said he believed “Google can help make it happen in six.”[2]

It wasn’t until December 2004 that the NYPL became involved with the Books project as an initial partner in what was then known as the Google Print for Libraries project. The Print for Libraries project was the next big step in the Books project, attempting to scan and make searchable the collections of several major research libraries, including Oxford, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Stanford.[3]

However, it might have been the announcement of this next big step that led to the controversy and lawsuits that would mire the project for years to come. While the agreements Google made with the research libraries would only allow it to “publish the full text of only those library books old enough to no longer be under copyright,” it also stated that for copyrighted works, ”Google would scan in the entire text, but make only short excerpts available online.”[4] Even if they were only making short excerpts available online, though, the fact that Google was scanning entire texts of copyrighted work without first obtaining the permission of the author or copyright holder led to lawsuits. The most notable of these lawsuits were the ones filed on behalf of authors by the Authors Guild[5] and on behalf of publishing companies by a group consisting of McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons.[6]

What, then, would Vaidhyanathan make of the Google Books project, particularly as it relates to his concept of Critical Information Studies (CIS), as well as his concerns about copyright? Just as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to recount the entire history and controversy surrounding the Books project, it would be just as difficult, if not impossible to include Vaidhyanathan’s possible reaction to each point of history and controversy. Instead, I will try to imagine Vaidhyanathan’s opinion of the Books project around the time of the NYPL’s initial involvement and ensuing lawsuits.

On the surface, a project to scan all of the world’s books and make them available and searchable online would be a tremendous tool related to the first field of CIS as described by Vaidhyanathan in his article “Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto.” Vaidhyanathan believes that people should have “the abilities and liberties to use, revise, criticize, and manipulate cultural texts, images, ideas, and information.”[7] Although not a complete fulfillment, Google Books would certainly have allowed people to use and criticize cultural texts in previously unimaginable ways and scale.

However, in a June 23, 2006 conference hosted by the Library and Information Technology Association entitled “Contracting for Content in a Digital World,” then Andrew W. Mellon Director and Chief Executive of the Research Libraries at the NYPL David Ferriero described two troubling anecdotes that seem antithetical to the second field of CIS, quickly ending any possible embrace of Google Books by Vaidhyanathan. Ferriero described Google as “very private about their scanning operations; we’re not allowed to take pictures; they developed their own equipment, their own software for the OCR, etc.”[8] Such a secretive, proprietary process to digitize the books seems at odds with Vaidhyanathan’s support of open source software as a way to “facilitate access to and use of scholarship and information.”[9]

More damning, however, is Ferriero’s explanation that “according to the terms of the agreement, the data cannot be crawled or harvested by any other search engine; no downloading or redistribution is allowed.”[10] While he did note that “the partners and a wider community of research libraries can share the content,” it still goes against not only Vaidhyanathan’s previously mentioned support of open source software but, more importantly, the second field of CIS.[11] Vaidhyanathan believes that users should have the “rights and abilities…to alter the means and techniques through which cultural texts and information are rendered, displayed, and distributed.”[12] With Google limiting access to their search engine and prohibiting downloading or redistribution, the Books project fails to be an appropriate tool for use in Vaidhyanathan’s CIS.

But what about the issues of copyright raised in the lawsuits filed against Google by groups representing authors and publishers? Vaidhyanathan spends time in his article describing everything from the history of copyright in Europe and the US, famous writers’ interest in copyright, theoretical concepts of copyright, to more recent, controversial copyright laws and cases. Despite that, it doesn’t seem that Vaidhyanathan would have as much of an issue with Google Books, at least regarding the copyrights of authors and publishers. It’s not that he wouldn’t want authors to be fairly compensated for or have no control over their work. But in his commitment to the dynamic, interdisciplinary nature of CIS, Vaidhyanathan exhorts that “every scholar committed to CIS should insist on retaining some of her or his rights to publications and making them available as widely and cheaply as possible.”[13]

Where the question of copyright and the Google Books project might become more concerning for Vaidhyanathan is what Tim Wu described in his 2016 The New Yorker article as a possible “monopoly in online, out-of-print books.”[14] To that I would add that through their partnership with many of the world’s leading research libraries, Google would have access to books that, while they may no longer be under copyright, are rare or difficult enough to access that Google would have an effective monopoly on them as well. Combined with their above described walled garden approach of access to information and it would almost give Google an implicit copyright and ability to make money on any out-of-print or rare out-of-copyright books they can scan.

A plan to scan all of the world’s books and make them available and searchable online at first seems like it would be an ideal tool for the scholarly analysis and debate of such dynamic, interdisciplinary fields as those found in Critical Information Studies. However, the restrictions of access placed on the project by Google itself are antithetical to those fields of study, as well as the abuse of copyright with which CIS often concerns itself.

[1] “Google Books History.” Accessed September 9, 2016. https://books.google.com/googlebooks/about/history.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Markoff, John, and Edward Wyatt. “Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database.” New York Times, December 14, 2004. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/14/technology/google-is-adding-major-libraries-to-its-database.html.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Authors Guild Sues Google, Citing “Massive Copyright Infringement”.” The Authors Guild. September 20, 2005. Accessed September 9, 2016. https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/authors-guild-sues-google-citing-massive-copyright-infringement.

[6] Wyatt, Edward. “Arts, Briefly; Major Publishers Sue Google.” October 20, 2005. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C02E4DA123FF933A15753C1A9639C8B63.

[7] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto.” Cultural Studies 20, nos. 2-3 (March/May 2006): 292-315. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals.

[8] Stuivenga, Will. “Contracting for Content in a Digital World.” LITA Blog. July 11, 2006. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://litablog.org/2006/07/lita-preconference-contracting-for-content-in-a-digital-world.

[9] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto.” Cultural Studies 20, nos. 2-3 (March/May 2006): 292-315. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals.

[10] Stuivenga, Will. “Contracting for Content in a Digital World.” LITA Blog. July 11, 2006. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://litablog.org/2006/07/lita-preconference-contracting-for-content-in-a-digital-world.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto.” Cultural Studies 20, nos. 2-3 (March/May 2006): 292-315. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Wu, Tim. “What Ever Happened to Google Books?” The New Yorker. September 11, 2015. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/what-ever-happened-to-google-books.

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