A Letter from America XXXIV: The Google Empire Strikes Back (June)

From the Rare Book Review

In the March issue I discussed the brouhaha which had arisen in this country after Google announced its plan to work with several major university libraries, most notably Stanford, who planned to digitize millions of volumes from their collections. I suggested, on the basis of the detritus I have seen spewed out of other libraries, that the digitizing process would be hard on the books. I also suggested that the increased availability of texts on-line will come to have an adverse effect on the lower end of the used book business (not on the rare book business, which I believe will benefit greatly).

Quick to react to my pontifications was the University Librarian of Stanford, Michael Keller, who took issue with many of my conclusions. Since I have a) the highest respect for Mike, b) no claim to actually know what I am talking about, and c) an interest in promoting worthwhile debate, I respond to his request for equal time by publishing (with his permission) his e-mail to me on the Matter of Google.

Dear Bill,

Just got a copy of your "Letter from America" from the March issue, "Will Google End My Career?"

Stanford has scanned millions of pages of documents, books, maps, and other library materials.  We have been doing this for nearly a decade and so have plenty of experience.  We and the other libraries in the Google mass digitization project have taken and will take particular care to take out of the processes any books that could be damaged and are involved in continuous monitoring of the scanning methods as well as the book handling methods from shelf back to shelf

You may be amused, perhaps even surprised, to learn that our conservation staff have spent months testing the various scanning processes we run internally and the Google process.  We already know the effects of scanning using various methods.  Fundamentally, there is no more damage than turning pages while reading the books on some machines and workstations.  On others, there is less wear and tear than placing a book on a photocopier. For books that are "de-spined" (I still prefer "guillotined"), naturally the book is badly damaged.  For some books with very brittle paper, the scanning process is one that may be the last affordable chance to save an image of the book and its contents as well before the pages fall apart on the next reading by an inconsiderate library patron.  The processes that we use and that Google uses are the least damaging. Redundant copies of common journals can be guillotined with impunity. One of the implications of your article is that you have other, perhaps contrasting information.  If you do, I would certainly like to see it.

Alas, some of your assumptions about the Google scanning process and its outcomes in the immediate and long-term are either inaccurate or limited. However, yours are less so than many others that seem driven to comment before results can be seen, used, and tested.

One of your conclusions is that used book sellers may be dealt another blow in addition to the one provided by Internet bookselling by the Google mass digitization effort.  First, there are some used book sellers who are selling a lot more books and making a lot more money than the days before the Internet.  Those who have figured it out or let others serve them in the Internet bookselling businesses are doing better than your article suggests.  Second, it is too early to tell whether the Google project will harm used booksellers.  Depending upon what Google displays and whether they permit printing and downloading, used book sales could increase. Certainly there is evidence that books indexed on Amazon sell better than books that are not indexed.

My own book-buying behavior has changed because of the Internet.  I buy more books on the advice of friends, reviewers, and citations I find.  I buy books more spontaneously, whenever I hear about them.  And I am induced to buy more than one book by the various point of sale come-ons, savings on shipping, and the like.  A sample of one is a poor one, of course, but am I that unusual?  And, of course, I still visit used books stores, but frankly I get a lot more through Alibris, because there is more choice and better organization of the virtual stacks.

Thanks for describing me as a book lover.  I am that as well as a publisher and a strategist trying to get more out of our collections in support of scholarship, teaching, learning, and just plain fun for Stanford's readers.  


                                                                 – William S. Reese