Google Books: Hold Your Horses?

Writing for the American Historical Association Blog AHA Today, Robert B. Townsend reminds us that Google Books, perhaps the most hyped digital initiative ever, has its problems. Among those discussed by Townsend are poor scan quality, incorrect or nonsensical metadata, and the application of copyright restriction to titles which rightly belong in the public domain, such as federal government publications. To these could be added incomplete metadata (where are the Library of Congress Subject Headings?); lack of control in searching when compared with most modern library catalogs and databases (Hey Google, ever heard of truncation? How about proximity search?); and several others. Townsend doesn’t want Google Books, the project, to be abandoned; he simply wishes to see the brakes applied: “What particularly troubles me is the likelihood that these problems will just be compounded over time. From my own modest experience here at the AHA, I know how hard it is to go back and correct mistakes online when the imperative is always to move forward, to add content and inevitably pile more mistakes on top of the ones already buried one or two layers down.” Many cataloging librarians would I’m sure sympathize with that last thought. Several of the commenters on Townsend’s post point out that it is not Google’s responsibility to play by the rules of libraries or the academy. After all, isn’t Google Books just a slick marketing tool for connecting users with libraries and bookstores, where the original, printed versions of titles can then be borrowed and purchased? Arguments such as these, however, ring hollow in the face of the glowing testimonials posted by Google on its own web site. Take, for example, this quote from the Library Journal’s editor-in-chief: “[Google Book Search] has the potential to revolutionize research and to make the libraries of the world into the world’s library.” Or this from a Bodleian librarian at Oxford: “Public domain books belong where the worldwide public can use them; and that is where the Bodleian, like its other library partners, wants them to be seen.” No, the reality is that people in and outside academia have very high expectations for Google Books. Google knows this quite well, and plays into the hype for all it’s worth. Hopefully Google and its library partners will not ignore the legitimate concerns raised in Townsend’s post. Rather than work to slow down the pace of digitization, librarians will undoubtedly continue to drive home the message that Google Books is merely one of a host of book digitization projects that students can and should investigate during the course of their research. —David C. Murray

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