A Letter from America XXXII: Google's Library (April)

From the Rare Book Review

A couple of years ago I saw a great T-shirt.  It showed a tearful young woman, rendered in the style of a ‘50s cartoon or a Roy Litchenstein painting.  In the bubble over her head she was exclaiming, “Nuclear war?  But what about my career?”

This seems to be the way a lot of book people, both new and rare, have reacted to the recent announcement by Google and several major universities – most notably Stanford – that everybody’s favorite search engine will scan in and offer access to the contents of entire libraries, some ten million volumes for starters.  Also participating will be the University of Michigan, Harvard, and Oxford , although the latter two are only contributing access to relatively small collections.  For the gloomy among us, the Google plan is yet another marker on the road to the End of the Book.  The flip side is also being expressed; an almost messianic belief in the power of the Internet to make us all better and wiser people.  Just stick those classics up and the kids will be reading Dante in between the video games.

As usual with such discussions about the import of technology, the truth lies somewhere in between these extreme visions.  The immediate impact is virtually nil – it’s going to be a lot of work, and take a lot of time, to scan all of these volumes.  This, I predict, will be a major bottleneck in the whole project, the equivalent to sending large picture files over an old telephone line.  For Stanford and Michigan, there will be an unpleasant discovery: the faster you try to scan things, the more damage you have to do to the physical book.  Tight bindings will be broken, periodicals guillotined, folding tables ripped.  No doubt scanning technology will also improve dramatically, but I don’t think the participating institutions really understand what the process will do to their books.  I say this presuming the goal is to preserve the books as well as scan them (the head of the Stanford Library, Michael Keller, is a book lover as well as a prophet of technology).

So it will be a slow process, but I have no doubt it will get done in time, or that it will be immensely useful and a fantastic research source.  Google is already one of the first stops for most researchers, including antiquarian book dealers.  The thought of having some form of searchable index to all of human knowledge (or at least that part of it not in copyright, another little technical problem that remains to be sorted out) is an appealing one indeed.

But what about my career?  How will this affect the rare book world?

Dealers in out-of-print material sell two things: artifacts and information.  In the beginning these two attributes went hand in hand, but alternative technologies have increasingly separated them.  Now we really have two distinct worlds.  Books being bought for their artifactual value (this includes most books that are truly “rare,” as well as virtually all literary first editions, fine printing, etc.) exist in a market place where the obtainability of the text has nothing to do with value.  Simply put, all of Dickens is in print, but his first editions are worth plenty, and always will be.  Books which are salable solely for their information value, on the other hand, are in deep trouble in the marketplace.  The great boom in institutional library building in the post-World War II world made a lot of material that was never of interest to private collectors quite salable for decades.  These markets have already been in decline because of diminishing library budgets.  The new Google project will deal a further blow to vendors who have already seen their profit margins cut dramatically by the more perfect market created by on-line bookselling.  This is where the real blow will fall, on the used book market.  In other words, my career’s fine, but it’s hard cheese for the poor guys trying to sell regular old out-of-print books.

The rare book market may even benefit in the long run from Google’s project.  Some institutions may dispose of the rare artifacts in their possession now that the text is available on-line – this source of supply is a big part of the market’s future hopes for supply anyway.  Increased awareness of great texts might mean more collectors.  What we may lose, I fear, is what is already endangered – the second-hand bookstore where we could browse and discover, where many of my readers got the best part of their education.                                                                

– William S. Reese