Daily Archives: November 29, 2005

Siva Vaidhyanathan on Outsourcing Risk

There’s an interesting piece in the Chron by Siva Vaidhyanathan – “A Risky Gamble with Google.” He argues that what some think is a David and Goliath story of Google versus big publishing is really more of a fight between Godzilla and Megalon.

He points out that the contract Google signed with U Mich does not protect patron privacy. “I know many librarians who would rather go to jail than reveal my borrowing habits to suspicious snoops. I doubt I can count on Google’s employees to be as committed to user confidentiality.” (By the way, when I wrote about this topic for Library Issues I contacted John Wilkin, Associate University Librarian, who said Google’s privacy policy was consistent with Internet business practices. In fact, that’s debatable – but what’s even more debatable is whether business practices are relevant in a library context.)

But what really worries him is that libraries are partnering with a huge for-profit corporation to “bet the Internet” on a copyright battle that could go wrong. Libraries have outsourced risk – and let Google lay claim to our social and technical role in society. He worries that in so doing, Google will “displace the library from our lives.”

The presumption that Google’s powers of indexing and access come close to working as a library ignores all that libraries mean to the lives of their users. All the proprietary algorithms in the world are not going to replace them. There was a reason why Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and others of their generation believed the republic could not survive without libraries. They are embodiments of republican ideals. They pump the blood of a democratic culture, information . . . Whichever side wins in court, we as a culture have lost sight of the ways that human beings, archives, indexes, and institutions interact to generate, preserve, revise, and distribute knowledge. We have become obsessed with seeing everything in the universe as “information” to be linked and ranked. We have focused on quantity and convenience at the expense of the richness and serendipity of the full library experience. We are making a tremendous mistake.

Well . . . I don’t know about that. We haven’t seen our libraries empty out as information goes online. I think libraries are as likely to be discovered as books are by their collections being searchable. Books will remain a viable format for sustained reading and engagement with ideas even if their contents can be found in snippets online.

But when it comes to the core values libraries have surrendered in order to let Google represent them in court – that’s certainly worth thinking about.