Google’s (Lack of) Privacy

Before I read this article, I didn’t fully realize the extent to which Google stores users search data and puts cookies on their computers so that searches can be tracked to individual people (how do they store all that data?), or that it scans the content of g-mail to create advertisements. The author claims there is a tension between Google’s mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and it’s motto, “don’t be evil.” Google might want to flesh out that motto a bit, perhaps by turning to how libraries have balanced these two conflicting priorities. Yet Google has another motto, “make money,” which is arguably a more direct source of the conflict.
What Google Should Roll Out Next: A Privacy Upgrade, New York Times

All Things Googled

Tony Sanfilippo, of Penn State’s university press, talked with The Ethicist on All Things Considered about Google’s library program. The Ethicist thinks the opt-out idea is not nice at all, and likens it to a burglar requiring you to list the things you don’t want stolen – only a good analogy if you assume what Google is doing is stealing – but he does point out there are other ways of looking at it. (I’ll steal your television, but I’ll only watch snippits?)

Sanfilippo does a good job of naming his real problem with the program: Google and the libraries they work with will have digital copies of books that the presses themselves don’t have in digital format (since they were produced in a pre-digital era) and he fears one or the other could undermine the market for digital sales, and without sales UPs can’t publish new research. Personally, I don’t agree on the library side of the issue: I find it impossible to imagine the Unversity of Michigan would illegally distribute their digital copies and one library having one digital copy seems unlikely to undermine sales in a significant way. What Google might someday do … well, that’s harder to predict.

Including what they call the program: it’s suddenly been renamed Google Book Search.

Who Needs A College Campus

This seems to be the week for prognostication in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education devotes quite a few pages to an exploration of what higher education could be like in 2015 – with positive and negative predictions for each topic covered. While that’s worth while reading I think another article that will get far less attention is also worth consideration. It’s titled “Who Needs a College Campus?”, authored by David Gelernter, and it appears in the current issue of Forbes magazine. I cannot provide a link because this article is available only to those who wish to register for Forbes online. I imagine that many of your libraries carry the print edition (Nov. 28) where it can be found on page 42.

Gelernter provides a vision of higher education in which an online free market rules. He predicts that scholars will create and market online courses available for individual purchase. Students could access courses from wherever they wish; there will be no need to affiliate with a single institution. Students will own the course and access the content as often as they wish. He sees the development of degree-granting institutions that will inspect a student’s credentials, administer tests, and determine if one is worthy of a B.A. or other degree. Of course, his escape clause is that there will always be top tier universities for those who can afford them. But for the rest of us he sees an electronic marketplace with affordable, convenient access to higher education. He doesn’t reflect on the fact that for many students higher education is a social and cultural rite of passage and learning experience as much as it is about earning a degree.

But if trends are pointing to an increasingly unaffordable higher education it suggests that an electronic marketplace – which technology certainly makes possible – is not completely out of the question. His model suggests you could also have a few, free-floating electronic academic libraries to serve the needs of those who pursue totally online education. While it doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of all physical libraries attached to traditional insititutions, who is to say that a significantly transformed online higher education marketplace couldn’t eliminate many of our institutions as well as our libraries. Will many of us end up working as toll-free support operators for some global online library? What do you see in your crystal ball?

Tension Between Personalization And Privacy

Most academic libraries would probably want to offer the sort of personalization features to their user communities that those users have come to expect with web retailers such as Amazon and Netflix. Consider “pushing” to a user news about some recent articles that are on the same topic as ones he or she retreived within the last few weeks. I imagine our users might like that sort of thing – or they might consider it an invasion of their privacy. It appears that concern won’t stop a few libraries from moving further into the realm of personalization.

Personalization versus privacy is the subject of an article in Sunday’s New York Times. It mentions projects at North Carolina State University and Notre Dame that will make it possible for the library to recommend new articles or other items based on previous uses of the collection. Other librarians from different segments of the profession, as well as a user or two, are asked about their concerns over data collection for the development of a personalized research system. Given the current Patriot Act environment in which we find ourselves there are some who observe that the less private data collected by libraries the better off we all are. But then again, should we let those concerns stand in the way of progress. Sounds like we’ll need to talk about this more with our users to find out if they are willing to sacrifice privacy for personalization.

Impending Demise Of The Local OPAC

That’s the title of a provocative presentation made by Gregg Silvis, of the University of Delaware Library systems office, at the annual PALINET meeting. I made a reference to this program in an earlier post, and I finally attended last Monday. Silvis began with a retrospective of OPAC development, and reminded everyone of how much maintenance work legacy catalogs used to require. You may date yourself if “filing above the rod” actually holds some meaning for you. Our catalog history is largely one of massive duplication of effort. Even though bibliographic networks and library automation eliminated many forms of duplication, to this day thousands of academic libraries duplicate effort when they maintain their local OPAC. Silvis’ radical solution to the duplication is to forego all local loading of catalogs, and instead use WorldCat as a shared, universal OPAC.

Silvis acknowledges that his vision for the OPAC is conceptual and short on specifics. His immediate goal is to share the idea with colleagues for feedback and refinement. He also reminds us there is more to library systems than the local OPAC; acquisitions, serials, and circulation are largely local entities and need to remain that way. But he clearly demonstrated how much of the information provided in the OPAC is available through WorldCat records. Among the advantages are a standardized and better interface than most OPACs. A uniform OPAC could allow for the display of only local holdings when desired. Challenges include a host of serials issues, potentially incomplete holdings information, and an inability to manage item specific information such as special collections material.

While it’s an idea that clearly needs more work it is not without merit. If we could manage to centralize the primary types of information into a national OPAC, it would indeed eliminate vast amounts of duplication conducted at local libraries. Those now performing that work could shift to public services where more outreach is needed, or could focus attention on local collections where backlogs exist, such as the archives or special collections. Clearly there are significant stakes in such an idea for OCLC and library automation vendors. While some pundits are calling for a radical re-thinking of the OPAC interface, this idea goes beyond that in many ways. We don’t necessarily need an OPAC interface that supplies a “Google experience” for library users. It may be we need one that just provides consistency. Silvis says he plans to give the presentation a few more times, and to continue gathering feedback from academic librarians that will help to refine the concept. I encouraged Silvis to turn the presentation into an article. It seems like an idea worthy of reaching a wider audience.