Friday, February 09, 2007

Google Books

The New Yorker may not be the first thing you think of when you think about keeping up with professional reading. But think again: nice long book reviews give me a good idea of what the book is about (not that a work reassessing the impact of Robert Moses on New York is really a good collection fit for my branch anyway); brief book blurbs serve as a good reminder of literary fiction about to be released; and finally its occasional pieces on technology are quite approachable (if longer than something from, say Library Journal or Wired).

In his piece in the February 5th issue of the NYer, Jeffrey Toobin takes a look at Google Books, the project infamous for scanning library books. Copyright law includes protection for libraries buying print books to loan to many people. Libraries pay hefty subscriptions for electronic resources that many people can use at once. Fair use permits excerpting, quoting, etc., but many argue that scanning entire books for free posting on the internet violates copyright law. Librarians like to protect intellectual property; we respect copyright law.

Librarians also like for people to have easy access to information. Yet online catalogs are not as intuitive as they should be. So while Toobin notes that "the most volumes in any catalogue is thirty-two million, the number in WorldCat," you have to remember that to find what you want in WorldCat, you need an accurate title or a well-constructed subject search. To find what you want in Google Books, you can just try a sting of words: it's why people like Google. They want to look for "cookbooks" not "cookery." Users want to use a natural language search.

There's a possibility that Google Books could be a book selling tool: that publishers and authors could still get paid for works that people find with the search engine as they click elsewhere to purchase. In this way, Google can exploit the Long Tail. Toobin quotes book agent Laurence Kirshbaum: "'It makes perfect sense to use the specificity of a search engine as a tool for selling books.'" Because, as Google director of content partnerships Jim Gerber said, "'when there are a hundred and seventy-five thousand new books each year, you can't marked each one of those books in a mass market.'" It may be that writers win an audience this way, that intellectual property is not threatened.

Probably what is threatened is librarian-as-gatekeeper and old-fashioned circulation statistics. Gatekeepers aren't cool anyway: don't just make the information or item appear: teach the use so she can try herself, next time. But if a student can get all of Moby-Dick from Google books (pertinent quotations, correct citations), there's no need to check one out, and the library board measuring achivemement by those stats is going to be disappointed.

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