New York Review on Google Books

There’s a long and thoughtful piece in the New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton on “Google and the Future of Books.Darnton is a renowned Harvard scholar on the history of the book and the director of the university’s library.

The NYRB piece negotiates the twin aims of promoting development through commerce and copyright on the one hand and enlightening as broad a segment of the public as possible through wide and free access to books on the other. Darnton explores the costs and benefits of Google’s having effectively captured the right to publish electronic versions of U.S. literature thanks to the settlement of the class action by publishers.

It may be that Canada, as a small bystander, can do nothing to avoid the gravitational force of the American result. Or, careful and timely action — perhaps in concert with the Europeans — might mean a different fate for our literature. But whatever conclusion you reach, you will be provoked to think by Darnton’s article.

Herewith some excerpts to intrigue:

[I]f we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction. To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere. No invisible hand would intervene to correct the imbalance between the private and the public welfare. Only the public can do that, but who speaks for the public? Not the legislators of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

After reading the settlement and letting its terms sink in—no easy task, as it runs to 134 pages and 15 appendices of legalese—one is likely to be dumbfounded: here is a proposal that could result in the world’s largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business—not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon.

This outcome was not anticipated at the outset. Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first

Finally, an irrelevancy I couldn’t resist. The NY Review has a greatly appealing favicon in the form of Shakespeare’s head. That someone could recognize the Bard in a 16 X 16 pixel format is remarkable:

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