Book search projects and libraries

book pages

With the announcement of Google’s new Knol Project (see my related post here) and the many advancements in book digitization, a discussion has popped up as to whether any proprietary “book search” will ever be as easy for users to grasp as “web search?”

In one corner, Tim O’Reilly made a comment on another blog’s statements (Booksquare.com) regarding the future of each company scanning books with different business models. O’Reilly seems optimistic in hoping that one day the separate entities will come to some parity and allow their holdings to be readily indexed by the major search engines. In his words, “Search engines should be switchboards, not repositories.”


In other words, with search engines capturing the holdings of multiple repositories, why should the search engine company also be responsible for the maintenance and authoritative archiving of the works of human history? In short O’Reilly states three things that would speed up the book search ecology:

  1. Book search engines ought to search publishers’ content repositories, rather than trying to create their own repository for works that are already in electronic format. Search engines should be switchboards, not repositories.
  2. Publishers need to stop pretending that “opt in” will capture more than a tiny fraction of the available works. (I estimated that only 4% of books every published are being commercially exploited.)
  3. Book search engines that are scanning out of print works in order to create a search index ought to open their archives to their competitors’ crawlers, so readers can enjoy a single integrated book search experience. (Don’t fight the internet!)

In response, Peter Brantley puts forth his thoughts on O’Reilly’s critique of the Google book search probabilities and the Google Knol project. To each of these efforts, and others like them, Brantley states:

…the terms of any settlement between Google, publishers, and authors, should it be consummated, will be good for no one except those entities, on the basis of its own terms, particularly considered that such an agreement could conceivably advantage the public to a far greater extent than is likely to be the case.

He goes on further to put forth a sort of mission statement, surrounding the efforts of librarians and archivists in building a openly free and maintained archive of information. Adding that this development should be “on our own terms” and free from the influence (seductive as it may be) of proprietary companies looking to secure a economic niche and market.

I can’t say that I am wholeheartedly on one side or the other, though I think the latter stance is a bit too Utopian to be a reasonable solution to creating a universal library of knowledge. I think we should bring our expertise as librarians and information specialists into this conversation, but holding on to this notion of “building” with our “own hands” may lead to exhaustion amongst those involved and most probably the inability to keep up with changes in technology and standards. As example, if I were restoring an old custom car; I would love to sketch out my vision for the paint job, tires, upholstery, and other features. I would not feel as comfortable tinkering with the transmission or hammering out new fenders. True I would hope the “professionals” I would take my vision to wouldn’t see fit to change my vision completely or stamp their logo on everything they touch; but in the efforts of time and satisfaction it may be prudent to use the expertise of well, experts.

Brantley’s other statement:

This is not an economic imperative; it will surely never be the aim of an advertising company. It is the mission that defines libraries.

…seems slightly idealistic when one takes into account what goes in to facilitating such an effort. True creating a universal archive of human knowledge shouldn’t be driven by the almighty dollar, but the efforts are ultimately supported by economic pushes. The people scanning books need to be paid, the servers must be maintained through some budget, and the legislators making the policy decisions regarding intellectual freedoms aren’t worrying about preserving that rare text for future generations, instead they worry about public approval and tax support in their domain. Bringing universally accessible books to Third world countries, perhaps on affordable laptops, cannot truly be seen only as a humanitarian effort to give a poverty stricken child the chance to read A Comedy of Errors. Bringing textbooks and literature to those who aren’t afforded such luxuries normally, may help to make the foundational changes in the economics of the developing world.

I suppose that came off more as a rant than anything, but I sometimes get irritated when conversations shift from productive means of progress and lead into philosophical diatribes on what it means to be a librarian. We should all be keeping the beauty of knowledge and information close to our breast, but not forget that the “product” we also provide is service. Don’t spend too much time sculpting the mound of mashed potatoes when the kids are asking you to pass the peas.

  1. 11/23/2015 at 7:12 pm

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