Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Few Thoughts on the Google Books Library Project

Charles Edward Smith has published a short thoughtful essay on Google's Book Project in the January-March, 2008 issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly. One of his cogent conclusions is that "Google's initiative will not make books obsolete; it will make the information in them more widely available."

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Recently, while making final changes to another article for publication, I accessed a nineteenth-century book by Justice Joseph Story, which had been scanned and was available on the Internet through Google's efforts, and I marveled anew.2 This and other digitization endeavors will preserve and perpetuate the ideas of thousands of authors by transferring them to today's technology. Pause to imagine the absence of Google's initiative, and it immediately becomes apparent that books and other printed material would quickly reach obsolescence if not easily accessible through digital technology. That is precisely what the Internet has changed in our everyday lives—we expect information of all kinds and from all sources to be only a few keystrokes away. Search engines are the new subject indexes to virtually infinite amounts of information on the Internet.

Numerous studies have testified to the increasing use of digital sources by students from primary to graduate school. The journal database JSTOR is one example of how fervently academia has embraced the new technology, while furtively disposing of the cumbersome method of accessing articles via subject matter indexes and paper journals. The breadth of this transformation is much larger, however, spanning reading the news online to finding driving directions and purchasing everything from groceries to cars online. We all realize, at some unconscious level, that society is changing apace. No matter how unwieldy or even frustrating using a search engine sometimes can be, simply because of the mass of information it accesses, I suspect we all still marvel occasionally at how this technology has changed our lives. . . .

Human knowledge is a temporal thing and susceptible to loss. (Consider, for example, the destruction of the ancient library of Alexandria.) Loss, in the case of physical representations of knowledge, includes not being used. If a hard-copy book or article disappears in the transfer of information from paper to bits, does anyone notice? Not after the transfer has taken place, certainly. The only people who might notice are the academic and computer professionals who plan for this transfer and watch it occur.

The technology exists to transfer knowledge and stories in print into a new, digital format for the consideration of this and future generations. The book, like ancient and medieval manuscripts, will continue to be a pathway for the transmission of knowledge. It is, after all, the ideas that are essential, and while many of us will never lose our love of paper books, the wonderful stuff inside them should survive for generations to come. Otherwise, collected human knowledge will be partial, mutated, and far too recent.

Looking at the breadth and complexity of the issues involved in this endeavor—from technology to copyright, indexing, and beyond—the successful transfer of knowledge is the task that lies before us. Any effort that responsibly furthers the task benefits all of us.

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