Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Google Books and the librarian backlash


Battle for the Books-feature image2From the beginning, Google Books was an ambitious — and controversial — project. In this excerpt from our latest ebook, The Battle for the Books, we see how, by early 2009, the search giant’s former allies began to turn against it.
Roughly a decade ago, Google hatched an audacious plan: The company would scan the world’s books and make them searchable. For our most recent ebook, The Battle for the Books: Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library, GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts tells the story of Google Books through the eyes of the authors, librarians, lawyers and Google staff who were involved.

In this excerpt, Roberts illustrates how, by early 2009, five years after the project launched, concerns about the legality and ethics of the project grew louder – and far more public. An early partner, Harvard University’s library began to turn against the project not long after the search giant reached a settlement agreement with authors and publishers. The leading anti-Google Books voice at Harvard was librarian Robert Darnton, and his criticisms reverberated throughout the librarian community.

By early 2009, influential figures in the academic and literary world had begun to digest the implications of the proposed Google Books settlement, and they were worried. The settlement raised questions about Google’s motives, and it also set off a number of emotional trip wires about knowledge in the digital age. Who will be the gatekeepers of our books — libraries or companies? Who will determine the literary canons of the future — people or computers?

The first to toss these questions like a glove at Google’s feet was Harvard librarian Robert Darnton. In February 2009, Darnton published a broadside in the New York Review of Books that many credit for rousing opponents to sandbag the initial settlement. Adorned with references to Voltaire and the Founding Fathers, the article was foremost a cri de coeur for the relevance of librarians: “The library remains at the heart of things, but it pumps nutrition throughout the university and often to the farthest reaches of cyberspace.”

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