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LectureHop: Robert Darnton – Google, Libraries, and the Digital Future

The Heyman Center kicked off its Fall 2009 lecture series with Harvard Library Director Robert Darnton. Stacks Correspondent Mark Hay reports:

A fair chunk of the audience at the Schapiro Center’s Davis Auditorium on Thursday fully expected this, the first Heyman Center event of the fall, to be yet another aging professor’s lamentation on the death of the book. Perhaps the audience was drawn less by the subject matter than by the opportunity to observe America’s most powerful librarian, Professor Robert Darnton, director of the University Library at Harvard University, outside of his natural habitat. Darnton, though, much to the attendees’ pleasant surprise, had no interest in discussing the death of print. A leading expert on the history of books, Darnton quickly dismissed the notion of the death of print with a volley of comparative historical anecdotes and facts and figures on recent book publications. Even the moderator, Professor Eric Foner, seemed a wee bit surprised.

Indeed, Darnton wanted to discuss the effects of Google Books’ digitization projects on the large research library. Though this may seem an extraordinarily dry and niche topic, something in Darnton’s passion, touched with dry wit and a number of charming tales, kept the audience enraptured. We let out a series of collective laughs and gasps and I am sure I heard someone brought to tears (although this may have been unrelated to Darnton’s subject matter). This man was good – so good that we were all willing to take his side in the matter without a second thought. Up with the underdog! Bunk the man, man!

What man were we opposing? Why, Google Books, of course. To Darnton’s sensibilities, Google Books, currently holding some thirty university libraries’ worth of knowledge, is a wonderful tool for the democratization of knowledge–in theory. In reality, says Darnton, it is a corporation that will necessarily seek to maximize its profits, whereas a traditional research library is more naturally suited to altruism: digitization might allow these libraries to offer their contents to the general public, and at no cost, as is currently the case at Harvard. So while exclusive research libraries maintain the ability to open free knowledge to all, Google Books is a blossoming monopolistic power pursuing rapacious policies for its own material gain. Not to mention, their cataloging process is atrocious – Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was stored in the “gardening” category.

Darnton’s claim against Google stems from a settlement on issues of copyrighted materials and digitization, currently set for resolution on October 7. The exact nature of this settlement, to quote Darnton, “is very complex” and would require a bit more space than a lecture hop. However, to take only Darnton’s word for it (which he, visibly irked by the situation, warned against), the settlement would allow Google to digitize certain library books, sell them back to libraries via a subscription fee, and then limit their access, such as by blocking their ability to print the manuscripts. Additionally, the agreements in the settlement would allow Google to control the digitization market and to censor up to fifteen percent of its contents, a rather bleak and Orwellian situation. 

So, why do university libraries agree to let Google digitize their materials? Because, said Darnton, Google is a cyber-siren, calling cash-strapped libraries towards its scanners, promising to waive twenty years of subscription fees and to grant access to even larger sources of information—at which point they are forbidden to communicate with other libraries. Google (still Darnton here) divides and conquers, dashing the corpses of academic libraries on the rocks with all the glee of some demented baby titan, with no mind for the unprecedented residual damage to copyright law, academia, and society as a whole.

Ultimately, Darnton advised the audience to place our trust in the old academic libraries which, given the funding, governmental support, and the wherewithal to work together, would achieve a catalog many times the size of Google’s. Furthermore, it would contain more unique and specialized information, provide better sorting mechanisms, have no incentive for profit, benefit smaller universities at little to no cost, free up money for acquisition and other worthy pursuits, and (again, still Darnton) generally realize utopia. Well, this is great; so how do we start? How will we defeat the evil Google and convince libraries to work together for mutually beneficial goals, thereby preserving the common good?And while we’re with you, can we talk about waiving some late fees?

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  • librarian says:

    @librarian this was well written, but I find myself wanting more. editors – this is a website. there’s no need for an arbitrary word limit. I’d like to know more about the details of darnton’s speech and the issues involved than hear a superfluous number of witty turns of phrase relating to the audience reaction.

    for example:

    “A leading expert on the history of books, Darnton quickly dismissed the notion of the death of print with a volley of comparative historical anecdotes and facts and figures on recent book publications.”

    this seems useful…how about sharing some?

  • Lucy Sun says:

    @Lucy Sun Along with Moses Nakamura, I’m following the Google Books + digital libraries story to the October 7 court case and through its conclusion. We are in the process of pitching our story to Columbia Political Review, but if anyone is interested in publishing our work, please feel free to contact me via my google profile:

    Also, Robert Darnton is coming out with a book next month, “In Defense of Books.” Moses and I are about to go pick up our advance copies, and we’re happy to review the book when the time comes, prolly for SpecBooks.

    1. Hartley 6 says:

      @Hartley 6 I love Moses Nakamura!

  • primer says:

    @primer C’mon Mark, no link to the New York Review of Books piece that put Darnton front and center in the public debate?

  • also says:

    @also Darnton’s grasp of the technology was a little disappointing. He harped way too much on the “metadata” (which is the wrong term for it), i.e. the catalog information for the books, and how there are instances of that information being wrong.

    Well, gee. I’d rather have them put more effort into scanning 10 million books than making sure they got the publication date of To the Lighthouse correct. And that’s the whole point of Google books – ‘open’ the book and get the catalog information yourself from the book itself.

    At the same time he failed to address the real issue – the privacy concerns of an eLibrary. When you go to Butler, no one know what you’re reading in the stacks. When you look at the same books on Google Books, google knows what you’re reading, which pages you’re looking at, which search terms you used to find that book, other books you read, and so forth. It’s a treasure trove for data mining.

    All that being said, props to the prof for giving props to Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum This sounded like a pretty great talk and wanted to see it, but I was busy.

    Many thanks Bwog for this comprehensive review.

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