June 3, 2009

Digital Libraries: Googles and Our Discontents

Readers here will find a very nice summary of an April 4, 2009, "Library 2.0" conference at Yale University. There my New Haven Review colleague and Yale instructor, Donald Brown nicely summarizes points made by the conference attendees. However, it is not surprising to see some of the issues glossed over by those who spoke (or perhaps simply not recorded by Don).

Don also offers his own points regarding the threats posed by Google and its ilk to libraries, per se, all worth the reading. However, I thought a few points ought also be made regarding the seemingly onerous burden placed upon us by Library 2.0.

Let me take on some of the issues Don mentions in the spirit of Plato...

Don: "Michael Zimmer of Univ of Wisconsin-Milwaukee…offered a few caveats to the collective zeitgeist of online ├╝ber alles with the notion, picked up from Neil Postman, of technology as always offering a Faustian bargain….Zimmer had reason to wonder if ‘Library 2.0’—the library as modeled on Google, essentially—will continue to provide a ‘safe harbor for anonymous inquiry.’ Not simply ‘who owns the content’ of what we post—but who owns the documentation, who gets to data-mine, and so forth."

Bennett: "Agreed, this problem of privacy of our inquiries is a serious problem. On the other hand, "datamining" is, in a very real sense, what every scholar already does. The question is not the activity but the nature of the data and the purposes of the mining. I’m actually grateful when Amazon recommends books to me of related interest based on the buying habits of previous customers. In a pre-Internet world, there was no way to have gotten that type of information."

Don: "Frank Pasquale, Visiting Professor at Yale Law School, spoke of the possible consequences of putting all our searches for information in the hands of ‘proprietary black box algorithms subject to manipulation.’ Wikipedia is always the first or second entry in any Google search. The first ten are apparently all anyone looks at. Everything that gets buried by the algorithm is as good as not there. This is not how research is conducted."

Bennett: "Actually, in some ways, this is how research is conducted. Before there was Google, there were—and still are—all sorts of 'shortcuts' in the research process: encyclopedias, reference guides, anthologies, textbooks, library catalogs (once card, now digital). I'm not certain what 'subject to manipulation' refers to here since there is always some form of sorting and re-sorting of data that occurs in secondary tools. Google—indeed, any search engine, is just one of these. The fault lies less in Google than in ourselves and our research habits."

Don: "[T]he notion of open access to all information, via the internet, of complete ‘transparency’ of provider and user, was more or less the mantra of the day. But what the Faustian bargain came to seem finally was not with the technology itself, but with giants such as Google and Amazon as the Big Brothers playing Mephistopheles, offering us the interconnected, easy access world of our dreams, but a world where we sacrifice something of our own intellectual curiosity, restlessness, and desire to see outside or beyond that black box algorithm that makes things so easily manageable for us."

Bennett: "Kind of covered that already, Brutus."

Don: " Wolpert pointed out that what made the MIT professors move for Open Access was their realization that, in the world of electronic text, libraries only ‘lease’ access to online work, rather than owning it like all those printed copies they store in perpetuity. If something happens to the provider or to the lease, all that material is no longer available. And now the publishing world seems poised to turn over all electronic control of out-of-print materials to Google to broker for us, and to disseminate to us according to its lights."

Bennett: "Wolpert has probably overstated the case. Libraries don’t lease all of their online content. Some of it is in fact purchased through “digital archive” arrangements, where libraries own digital copies of their books in perpetuity. These typically affect collections of historical books (not from Google but other major library vendors) and certain journal collections. The fundamental problem is not lack of ownership; it’s the ability of libraries to host the data on their own. And while I'm not one defend Google, on this front, again, I think the case is overstated since I believe Google turns over digital copies of books from any library to that library. (E.g., Harvard gets digital copies of its books alone; Stanford gets theirs, etc.) The problem is not ownership of that data: it's what happens when the current distributor of it goes bust or ceases offering that service. Now all the libraries, whom hopefully did get digital copies of their books, have to figure out a new way to get all that content up on the Web and strung together."

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