In a recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly.com, my friend Siva Vaidhyanathan characterized my support of the Google Books Project in ways that I must take issue with. (He also said many things that are insightful, wise and witty, and the whole interview is worth reading.)
Here’s the part that motivates this post:
PW: But Michigan librarian Paul Courant, for example, has argued passionately that Google’s books project offers great public benefits, making millions of long-lost books discoverable and accessible, work libraries could never have done so expeditiously. Doesn’t he have a point?
SV: I’m sympathetic to the expediency argument, but I’m also impatient with it. Courant’s argument is based on two assumptions that I take issue with. First is the assumption that the cost to university libraries would be low. We know now that the cost to libraries has actually been significant, and the benefit has been overstated. We also know now that Google wants to be a bookstore, not a library.
Second, the premise that no one else was ever going to do this is an argument by fiat, a classic fallacy. If we, the people of the world, the librarians of the world, the scholars of the world, the publishers of the world, decide that we should have a universal digital library, then let’s write a plan, change the laws, raise money, and do it right. If we’re going to create this with public resources, let’s do it in the public interest, not corporate interest. There’s nothing wrong with Google pursuing a books project, of course, and, yes, there are benefits. But we have to understand that what Google has created is first and foremost for Google, and I think a lot of people have fooled themselves about that.
I respond to Siva’s two points in order. First, my support for the project is not based on an assumption that the cost to university libraries would be low, but rather on a calculation that the costs are and have been substantially less than the benefits. The leadership of two dozen or so major research libraries seem to agree with me. The unsupported assertion that “we now know that the cost to libraries has been significant, and the benefit has been overstated” is, well, an unsupported assertion. For the University of Michigan Library, the cost has been material but not overwhelming. We have used staff time, organizational effort, and there has been some disruption of our activities. But the benefit has been far larger, in the form of making the content of our collections widely searchable, the public domain content readable by anyone, giving us a backup copy of our collections, and in seeding the HathiTrust, which is a cooperative digital library (not a bookstore) with some fifty-two academic libraries as members and a collection of over eight million volumes that is growing by tens of thousands of volumes a week. (Check out HathiTrust.org). Siva is welcome to discount these benefits, but first he should count them.
Second, although it’s an honor to be subject to a “classic fallacy” after all of these years as a college professor, I don’t quite see the fallacy. Just who, other than Google, has been willing to step up and do the job? And in what pre-Google fantasyland might we have expected the publishers of the world to show interest in making their backlists part of a universal digital library? And why would we believe that we can go to Congress and get improvements in copyright law when every time Congress touches copyright law it gets worse? (Indeed, I would suggest that the Google books project, by showing the value to millions of citizens of digital access to a large corpus of published work, is more likely to move Congress than the excellent public policy arguments that have been adduced, to deaf ears, by the likes of librarians, Siva, and myself.)
I continue to believe that had Google not embarked on this project, and showed the world that mass digitization of library collections could actually be done, we would still be counting the corpus of digitized work by tens of thousands instead of millions. To be sure, my assertion here is not subject to proof. We cannot know what would have happened had Google not gone into the scanning business. What we do know is that no one else was doing it. And no one else is doing it. That’s not a fallacy, but a fact. Actually, two facts. Maybe someone else would have done it. But when? I’m a lot older than Siva, so I’m the one who gets to be impatient when it comes to providing the riches of the world’s academic libraries to the people of the world.