Google, public libraries and the rest of us


Google Books
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Google is maybe one of the most important companies in the world. As opposed to Apple which maybe is just as prominent and maybe a larger brand success than Google, Google is also a company of huge cultural political and democratic importance. The purpose of Google is not only to provide cool gadgets for all with a lot of money (which means wannabes like me) but to set a revolutionary goal such as organising all information worldwide and make it available for most people. It is by means of these eternally expanding and enormous server farms which Google has established, and the services which basically all of us use every day, that Google deals with so much new data every moment like no one else before in the world’s history.

And not only does Google handle all the new digital data which our use of internet, social media etc. generates. Google also wishes to digitise our entire cultural legacy, our entire history. One of the most ground-breaking projects in this area is Google’s ambition to digitise all analogue books in the world and make them available via Google Books.

Google is an extraordinary company. It is beyond any doubt that Google via its services has added so much value to companies, individuals, governments and NGOs that I dare say that the world has become a better place because of Google. Google’s services do not only streamline the access to and sharing of information for small companies and ordinary people, but through Google also large efficiency profits in listed companies and public institutions are reaped.

But Google is not a non-profit company which only exists to serve you, me, and all of us. Google’s motto “don’t be evil” has no independent meaning but serves only to emphasise that this motto, or slogan, will be followed as long as Google’s management themselves feel that this makes sense. Google is a listed company in the United States and one which both legally – and in my personal opinion as a liberal – also morally is obliged to act only in its owners’ – that is, the shareholders’ – interests. If the rest of us think that conflicts may arise in relation between the shareholders’ interests and the society’s interests more broadly, it is up to us to define the restrictive structure through common law. No one can expect that Google will behave differently from all other companies.

Google therefore was only brought into the world to make money and to maximise value for the shareholders. Google’s services are to a great extent made available freely to the users. “Free” is however a truth with modifications because the users as a starting point do not pay to use Google’s services. The user however transfers another value to Google which in many cases has much more worth than money. The user gives Google an opportunity to gather information about the user’s preferences, and other details, so that Google can sell commercials (advertisements) which – at least in relation to competitors – are presented in an extremely customised way for the specific user. Thereby Google makes very good money. It is primarily in acknowledgement of the fact that the market for targeted commercials is in constant growth that Google’s equity prices have been constantly increasing (however much this may be ‘a truth with modifications’ lately).

Thus Google treats all information and data which are gathered via the users’ use of the internet – website-owners linking to other sites and users clicking on different search results – with a view to obtaining search and other results which support a commercial sales model. Google’s entire structure of the algorithms and other technology which support search results, the definition of relevant criteria are therefore based on the expectation that people shall be led to results which give the greatest likelihood to buy or other relevant action for commercial purposes.

There is nothing wrong with a search result being seen in the light of a commercial activity. In very many cases it is precisely with a view to trade that people make searches on the internet. However, this is far from the case every time. The “truth” which Google presents, the “true” search results in connection with, for instance, the search word “Pandora” are far from always being relevant, if the search is made in an educational, research-related, democratic or in the context of another “public” matter. Google’s algorithms are far from always accurate in such non-commercial contexts.

As Google therefore of course has a commercial bias, it is relevant to ask whether you can leave it to a private, profit-maximising, American company to organise all, not only commercial information, but all information in general and make it available in all contexts not only for immediate consumers, but also more widely for citizens. Does Google carry out services which from an educational, research-related and democratic point of view ought to be carried out by the public sector or another kind of non-profit run unit? I am not going to attempt here to answer this question more generally as it is very comprehensive and complex. My approach for such a discussion is that we can all be pleased that Google has taken initiative at all to provide all these services as it is obvious that an often sclerotic public sector should have a proper “kick in the pants” to move on. Google adds very much value until the effect of this “kick” has occurred.

However in one area I will however try to relate to this problem. Should we be pleased, or afraid, if Google – as planned – gets the opportunity to scan and thus create a database of all the books in the world, not only in the English language, but also books in other languages, including books in the Danish language? This question shall be seen in connection with the question about which role public libraries (also foreign, but in this context of course mostly Danish) should play in a world where we go towards a situation where all information is digitised and available via the internet.

The question is highly relevant as Google is still working with its ground-breaking project for scanning all the books in the world. Google Books have as a goal not only to give access to the books which today already are “in print”, but also to the enormous numbers of books which are unavailable today with exception of a few physical copies in individual libraries around the world. Through comprehensive cooperation with American university libraries, Google is already well started on scanning a great number of books which due to the elapse of 70 years since the author’s death no longer are subject to copyright. The project has, however, been suspended, as an American court has overruled the preliminary agreement which Google had entered into with American publishers and the American Society of Authors about the scanning of books no longer were in print but still subject to copyright to either authors or publishers.

No one should disagree that humanity would benefit if all these books, this enormous compilation of knowledge, were made available via the internet to rich and poor, and the users of the first, second and third world. The real question is more under which auspices these books, this knowledge, should be made available. Should it be made available through a private player such as Google, or should it be a public task?

My answer is that knowledge as far as possible should be a part of a “common” which is freely available for all, and which everybody can use both non-commercially and commercially by delivering services “on top”. This of course inevitably leads to the conclusion that the starting point always must be that such knowledge when we are not speaking about the actual creation of the works should be made available via a public project. As a starting point, knowledge should be free and publicly available, and it is only when knowledge is not generated because of market failure that we need to build exclusive rights such as copyright, patents, trademarks, and so on; that is, real monopolies on knowledge, via legislation.

However, I am also a realist. Everybody can see that the public sector has not been able to perform in this area, whereas Google has over-performed to a high degree. Lack of funding, and also problematic incentive structures, poor management, obstacles to innovation, etc., within the public sector, are other factors to take into account. And, when we are talking about international cooperation, it will probably be impossible that such an ambitious project as Google Books could ever be realised entirely under public auspices. Therefore we do need Google Books – to some extent and in some collaboration with the public sector.

My pragmatic evaluation is therefore that Google Books to a great extent should be promoted as there could be set up reasonable scope for Google’s use of the data about the users’ use, which consumer legislation and personal data legislation dictate. There should also be set up competition law provisions as to what extent Google will be obliged to make its data available for competitors. Finally non-commercial players, such as libraries, research institutions, schools, etc. should of course be given extended rights to use the information which Google has obtained. But it is important that Google is still given the necessary incentives to make the extensive investments which such a large and ambitious project dictates. But certainly they will work something out.

The question is rather: which role should the public sector play, together with and maybe in competition with, Google Books? The public sector – Denmark and EU – should make an ambitious plan to build and make available what I would call “open culture”. Especially in areas where the quality which Google Books hopes to provide, the accessibility in relation to open licences, search criteria etc., are insufficient, the public sector should join and finance projects which then compete or put up alternatives to databases, in this case books and their contents. The role of the public sector should therefore in this context all the time be to try to keep a market for open content going, so a continuous pressure is put on Google in this respect. It is obvious that such a pressure cannot be put on Google in relation to English-language literature, but it is not unrealistic that the public sector in Denmark can put up competitive alternatives within Danish culture.

I do not plead that Danish tax payers should pay for a number of new scanning personnel to be hired and a number of new scanners acquired to scan something which is similar to Google’s level. The public sector should rather “seed-fund” where they can see that there is a wish, whether among citizens (amateurs) or companies, to see an alternative to Google.

One could imagine that scanning of the Danish culture heritage, and in particular creation of relevant metadata (which probably is the most significant value-adding to the raw data), could be made via crowdsourcing. In this context the public sector could lay the cornerstone of larger projects just by releasing the material which they already had scanned themselves.

All material should of course be made available under relevant open licences which typically mean Creative Commons licences.

Such a giant digitised open culture heritage would be to the great advantage of all in the Danish society, maybe with the exception of Google who would welcome the fact that the Danish culture heritage was also a part of Google’s services. Not only would sharing and enrichment of the material in connection with use in schools, universities, research institutes, various other associations and the like, be a great advantage for the knowledge level in society in general. But also Danish firms (and of course also foreign companies) would have unprecedented new opportunities for providing services against payment “on top” of this culture commons.

Now when all citizens can access the culture heritage, in this case books, in a digitised form via the internet, what shall we use the libraries for? In reality the future library will fill exactly the same role which public libraries have filled for the past two hundred years. The libraries help the citizens get access to the culture, and find what they want. The librarian’s finest role has always been (when you disregard the purely administrative “annoying duties”) to help the library users to find information, books, records, magazines, etc. which the library users cannot find for themselves. This role has been taken over by organising (indexing, etc.) books at the libraries which subsequently helps the library users specifically in finding the books on the shelves.

Future librarians will have similar functions. First to seek to organise all the digital information to which access is given via a virtual library. As Google’s search results are by no means always relevant, cf above, the librarians must put up other search criteria, search mechanisms, and gather and organise metadata, so that searching literature, for example, for research purposes will provide, from a public point of view, relevant results.

Secondly, future librarians must help the individual user of a virtual library not only to search in “the right way”, but also to be able to use the search results and get access to these subsequently. Electronic information does not mediate in the same way as Danish print-media and information in Danish-language. The latter can be read by all who are not blind and who can understand Danish. The first requires often updated computers, internet access, etc.

Therefore there is still a need for librarians, and in the light of the increased amount of information and the increased complexibility, there will be even more need for librarians in the future than there is today. They will perform the same functions, but will be decisively more orientated towards the digital world, the internet and all the issues and challenges which are given in that connection. (It is interesting also to remember that the first attempts to create clarity in connection with search services required that companies like Yahoo!, and in Denmark Jubii, frequently hired librarians to help the users finding the websites which were relevant).

Libraries will be virtual in future to a great extent, or to put this a different way, will be services which are accessed online via a browser. There is no reason that many of the functions which a librarian will be expected to provide in future cannot be delivered via e-mail, Instant Messaging/chat, Skype and so on. But as long as the supply of digital information requires hardware and internet connection, and most likely it will always be like this, there will also be a need for physical libraries.

Other than that the libraries continue to ensure the “public” access to information handling, there will also always be a need that necessary hardware and software, and advice in this connection, are made available for that part of the population who for one reason or another does not have access to such tools. And finally, in future the libraries could be used for all kinds of physical get-togethers more or less related to the culture content which otherwise is given access to via the library, regardless of whether this happens via digital services or by the lending of physical books.

And then there is the whole discussion about which role the bookseller will play in the future, when almost all culture can be accessed digitally via the libraries. More on this subject in a future blog entry.

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