Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kahle on Google Books and libraries. Disquiet, please!

Although I still buy books and CDs, I've become so accustomed to not paying for information, software applications, and other intellectual property that I actually find it quite galling when something I want to read or use requires subscription or payment. Those commercial providers sure have a lot of nerve!!! (sometimes they'll even lure you to the product with an abstract or excerpt!)  But what if the effort to come to terms with the new free economy founders, and paying for quality information again becomes the rule rather than exception? Many newspapers will have fallen by the wayside during the giddy information-wants-to-be-free spree, and libraries will perhaps have carved out entirely new niches for themselves...e.g. as internet cafes and social gathering places. Brewster Kahle's Washington Post (A book grab by Google) raises questions about what happens when the mightiest players decide they need to redefine the rules of the game. Some excerpts...(the article can be read free of charge):

Google will have permission to bring under its sole control information that has been accessible through public institutions for centuries. In essence, Google will be privatizing our libraries.

Broad access is the greatest promise of our digital age. Giving control over such access to one company, no matter how clever or popular, is a danger to principles we hold dear: free speech, open access to knowledge and universal education. Throughout history, those principles have been realized in libraries, publishers and legal systems.

p.s. - Walt Crawford has contested Kahle and others' use of the phrase "privatizing our libraries" as inaccurate and counterproductive. For more on that, see Crawford's comment to this posting, and a lengthy exchange (May 23, 2009) at Walt at Random...including comment by Siva Vaidhyanathan

p.p.s - and here is a response to Kahle in yesterday's Washington Post by Paul Courant, Dean of Libaries at U. Michigan, one of the collections that Google has "privatized.." Perhaps Kahle will clarify what he means..


  1. I may give up repeating this but: The information accessible through public institutions for centuries continues to be equally accessible through those public institution. That's simple fact. Nothing in Google's agreements in any way causes libraries to provide any less access than they ever did.

    Maybe "providing MORE access to public resources in a nonexclusive but privileged manner" constitutes "privatizing" in some new version of English, but it's not one I recognize.

  2. Thanks for your comment, which prompted a little research that was enlightening for me; I see you've thought (and written) hard about this, while I was perhaps taken in by Kahle's soundbites. But to take your book borrowing+digitization=privatization example from C&I jan08, you say "If Google negotiated exclusive contracts, maybe." My (uninformed) reading had Kahle saying that that is precisely what Google is doing. I also take him to mean the privatization not of "The information accessible through public institutions for centuries," which as you point out continues to be as available as ever, but the far more valuable digitized body of that information. I'm curious - Kahle persists in using "privatized" in this manner, even in major media like the Washington Post, and you have been persistent in criticizing him for it...has he responded to your criticism at all?

  3. Petter: Sorry, I didn't follow the comments. No, Kahle has never responded to my criticisms--for all I know, Kahle either doesn't know I exist or regards me as irrelevant. (OK, so I had lunch with him once, years ago. That doesn't negate either of these possibilities.) And, from Kahle's high-profile pundit perspective, I probably am irrelevant.