Google's goal of creating a giant literary database may not fit the traditional model of free public libraries.
LA Times Editorial: 2008 November 10
Google, whose corporate ambition is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," has reached a breakthrough agreement with book publishers to make millions of out-of-print volumes accessible to the public. Unfortunately, it's not clear how useful the pact will be to libraries and their patrons. That's because the deal promotes a "pay to read" approach that's the antithesis of the free public library model.
The deal grew out of a lawsuit that authors and publishers filed in response to a Google initiative to scan the collections of five major university libraries into a giant electronic database. The ostensible purpose of the database was to extend Google's search capabilities to the contents of some of the country's biggest libraries, providing what amounted to a card catalog for the 21st century. But Google had another goal as well: to give public libraries of all shapes and sizes access to rich digital collections of works, most of which were out of print.
In a settlement announced late last month, Google, the American Assn. of Publishers and the Authors Guild agreed to give publishers more control over what went into the database and how its contents were viewed. Google could make digital copies of entire works available to public and university libraries, but with limits. Significantly, public libraries would have free access only to previews of the digitized books, and only on one computer terminal per library building. Patrons can use Google's service to try to find a copy of a book at a nearby library, but if they want a digital copy, they'll have to pay for it. And even then, they won't be able to download the copy to their laptop or portable device; they can either print it or read it from the website where it will be stored. The Web-only approach requires better wireless Internet access than most people have today. Libraries that want to let users read copies for free will have to pay a subscription fee to a new "book rights registry" run by authors and publishers.
Proponents of the deal say it's just the starting point, and that Google and the registry will have the flexibility to explore more business models. The initiative will give publishers important new insights into how people want to use their works online and how digital technology is transforming the book market, they say. Nevertheless, some libraries are worried about a shift toward charging readers each time they take a book out of the digital stacks. It's unfortunate that Google and the publishers didn't take advantage of the emerging standards in the electronic book field to enable libraries to acquire and circulate digital versions of out-of-print titles. Companies such as Overdrive are providing a model for e-book lending that preserves the spirit of free public libraries. Google and the publishers should look for ways to apply that model to their new effort, helping libraries keep pace with a reading public that's increasingly eager and equipped for a world with less paper.