A Good or Raw Deal for Libraries? Google Books and its Implications for Libraries

By Travis Bonnett

Recently, there has been much ado about one of Google's most ambitious projects to date: Google Books. According to a June 2009 Wired Magazine Online article, Google has already digitized 10 million books (Singel, 6/2009). This is not surprising considering Google's mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" (Google, 2010). The Google Books project should be a subject that every librarian or advocate of libraries because libraries are going to be impacted, positively or negatively, by Google Books in the years to come. Google itself even acknowledges that without librarians and libraries the Google Books project would not be possible. Several issues have plagued Google's attempt to digitize every book possible, including the issue of copyright. Some authors felt that Google doing was in violation of copyright laws because authors and publishers felt they were not being fairly compensated for their materials or even asked for their permission to scan their materials (Singel, 6/2009). The authors filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2005. Later, the authors settled with Google to have the legal right to scan books and allow readers to read twenty percent of the books online without having to pay for the privilege of reading the entire book (Singel, 4/2009).

Privacy concerns have created concern among some privacy advocates. Some worry that now that this project will shift the responsibility of protecting reader's privacy shift from the traditional guards, libraries, to the new guard, Google (Singel, 6/2009). If someone finds a book that they would like to buy, it would add electronic bookmarks to their personal library and they would also have to create a Google account; creating and signing into a Google account is required to complete this task. This is problematic because this will mean that Google will have personal information, such as full names, email addresses, and zip codes, of everyone who completes this task. This could cause problems down the road with privacy and the selling of personal data.

Perhaps the most problematic and ethically challenging issue posed by the Google Books project is how many library terminals are allowed to have access to all of the books in full text. Originally, Google allowed one public terminal to be free of charge to each public library and an access fee for every other terminal (American Libraries, 2010). With the settlement, Google has agreed to more free public access terminals, but the exact number is still unclear. It could possibly be a per capita basis; for example, a major public library would be entitled to free access at 100 terminals while a smaller public library would only be entitled to five to ten.

To be sure, Google Books presents some potential benefits for libraries that would allow librarians to serve their respective patron bases better. Google along with Amazon.com have allowed their information to be put on library OPAC's that allows patrons to find more information about the items they may or may not want to check out (Emanuel and Kern, 2009). In an actual Google Books record, users are able to find the book in several different ways: one way being to purchase said book from an online retailer such as Amazon.com or Borders or secondly finding the book in a library by clicking on the "find in a library" link that goes to the item's Worldcat record (Google, 2010).

Also, one of the stated goals of this project is to allow for the indexing of every book title without actually completing the task manually; this allows individuals to search for a term in every publication known, thus cutting research time to mere seconds. The project is a great benefit to researchers because rare items, such as Jane Austen's letters from the end of the 19th century or a 1919 Harvard alumni directory, that may be in only one library or archives now may be accessed from anywhere in the world via an internet connection (Toobin, 2007).

Google Books poses great promise and dilemmas for libraries, but librarians should be enthusiastic about this project and eager to work with Google to make the dream a reality. However, the welfare of the patrons and communities, both small and large, should always been in mind. With that said, libraries should agree to continue to work with Google but with added provisions, such as all public access computers, in public and academic libraries, should have access to full access Google Books, and patrons should be allowed to access the database from home with proper authentication. To prevent future price gouging and other anti-trust crimes, Google should agree to having the project become property of the Library of Congress or some other non-profit organization to ensure full access for everyone for the common good. All of this can be done because Google made the statement itself, "this wouldn't be possible without libraries" (Google, 2010).