Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Darnton on the Google Books Settlement

I suppose it's high time I discuss Robert Darnton's 12 February NYRB piece "Google & the Future of Books," and the various responses it's elicited. I've been letting this one percolate for a while, (as I guess I tend to do with Darnton essays).

Darnton, the head of Harvard's library system, begins by pointing out the simple, key fact about the Google Books settlement: it's extremely long and incredibly complicated (as Caleb found out when he tried to navigate through it), so nobody really knows yet what the heck it all means or what the long-term implications are for anyone (Google, publishers, authors, libraries, users, &c.). He continues by looking back to the great 18th-century notion of the Republic of Letters (in which "the realities of literary life contradicted the lofty ideals") and casting an eye to the present (in which much-lengthened copyright protections have brought us to a "world designed by Mickey Mouse, read in tooth and claw").

Calling out the publishers of academic journals for their blatantly extortive practices (my word, not his), and noting that the cost of an annual subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology now costs $25,910(!), Darnton concludes that this highway robbery has created "ripple effects [which] have damaged intellectual life throughout the world of learning." But, he says, there is a glimmer of hope in the emerging models of open access: "The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips. We can make the Enlightenment ideal come to life in reality."

Or can we? Darnton says that commercialization may be the wrench in the works: "To digitize collections and then 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 to the public sphere." Libraries must digitize materials, he argues, "But not on any terms. We must do it in the interest of the public, and that means holding the digitizers responsible to the citizenry."

Darnton goes on to examine the Google Books project and the proposed settlement between it and the author/publisher community and what that settlement may mean for libraries and for users: a grand possibility for what would truly be the largest library in the world, but worrisome because of the de facto monopoly it would grant Google over the digitization of books covered by American copyright law. He makes the important point that American libraries missed their chance in the 1990s to band together with foundations and create a National Digital Library: "It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy - the control of access to information - to be determined by private lawsuit."

The effective monopoly which Google will hold if the settlement is approved, Darnton writes, should concern us all even though Google has thus far operated in a way that seems fair and appropriate. "What will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire?", Darnton muses, adding "The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges." Yes, he admits, having an "immense corpus of digitized books" available is a great thing, but "this is a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the forseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever."

I suspect Darnton is right to suggest that the ship has probably sailed on copyright-covered materials, since it seems fairly unlikely that a judge will throw out the settlement or change it in any substantial way. However, I also think that there is still a key place for non-profit, open-access efforts like those run by the Internet Archive - and frankly, Harvard's participation and/or leadership in those efforts wouldn't be a bad thing.

There are several elements of Darnton's argument and the Google Books settlement which bear considering. The fact that they'll be making the great mass of copyrighted-but-out-of-print materials available digitally is great (for most): as Thomas Augst notes in a NYTimes piece on Darnton's essay, this increased availability of material will begin "leveling distinctions" between circulating libraries and research libraries, many of which are still difficult to gain access to (ahem, including some of the Harvard libraries). Even for a small fee, being able to quickly access (and search!) across this vast sea of text will be a boon to researchers around the world. I do hope, however, that if Google goes ahead with this plan, they will find a way to incorporate bricks-and-mortar booksellers into the equation: some customers (myself included) may wish to purchase hard copies of titles even if they are available via Google, and those customers should be able to easily locate one (by a link to ABE or ViaLibri, perhaps, although it's not clear whether the settlement will allow that). Google's making such an option available would speak loudly about its avowed purpose of not being out to make money but to provide information and access options.

Darnton's argument that a Google-based monopoly over out-of-print books violates the "information wants to be free" ideal (which he expresses even more forcefully in an NPR interview) isn't bad, or wrong, but he fails to offer any constructive alternatives. If any institution could lead digitization in a different direction it's Harvard, but Darnton does not lay out a scheme for that. If he's got one up his sleeve, I'd love to hear it. In his essay he begins to make an important point (that copyright protections shouldn't be as practically infinite as they currently are), and perhaps that's a springboard. If he wants to lead a movement to push back against the Mickey Mouse Protection Act and its ill-begotten progeny I'll happily take to the barricades with him, but under current law I'm not sure there's a better solution than what Google and the authors have reached (provided that things go off generally as envisioned).

Another of Darnton's threads to follow is the "don't digitize only to limit access" idea. Sarah Werner discusses this in a post at Wynken de Worde, writing: "As a scholar of early modern books, I have to wonder, how do we democratize those? Do we just agitate for free EEBO, Early English Books Online for everyone everywhere? Will those books be read? Will those books be understood? Every semester I see my students interact with early printed texts for the first time and initially, they can hardly make sense of what they are looking at. Why do they mix up their i's and j's? Why are there f's instead of s's? Why can't they spell? What's that word down there at the bottom of the page and where are the page numbers?! Libraries, digital and otherwise, make texts available. But it is teachers who enable them to be read. Scanning all the books in the world won't make a Digital Republic of Learning if we don't value reading and learning in the first place."

Reading and learning (and teaching) must be valued, there can be no dispute about that. And I don't expect expensive databases like EEBO, ECCO, Digital Evans, &c. to suddenly be free and available. But I certainly wish they could be. Sure, there might be people who don't get every nuance of what they see (opening up a great opportunity for those of us who can help in that regard to provide contextual details). But not having access to them severely limits scholarship, especially for those of us who are no longer students and don't happen to work at places that can afford access to all of them). Leadership from Harvard and other major research libraries on that front could help too; a clamor for open access to such resources would go a long way toward making it happen.

Darnton's goals and aims are laudable, and I'm glad he's taken a broad view and has neither wholly embraced nor scorned the Google settlement. The issues he raises are important, and I hope that his essay will spur a wide debate throughout the library community about its continued role in the new digital world. As he says, the one thing we cannot to is sit back and watch as the world changes around us, because if we do that, we'll find ourselves in a world we played no role in creating.