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Google’s Values

Siva writes:

There are real issues here. It’s not just some “priesthood vs. pirates” thing. It’s about the fact that Google does not answer to us and the libraries that are giving away the treasure have abrogated their responsibility to defend the very values that librarianship supports.

Maybe I have a different sense than Siva does of the relative strength and fragility of the values that Google Book Search puts in play. Siva worries that Google has put fair use law at risk. I’ve only skimmed the Perfect 10 opinion that Siva is writing about, so I don’t have a well-formed opinion on the case, but generally I don’t think of fair use as a fragile thing. Kelly v. ArribaSoft, the Ninth Circuit case that Judge Matz distinguished in Perfect 10, is something of a fair use outlier in my book, though I do think that it was rightly decided. Fair use will survive Perfect 10, whatever the Ninth Circuit decides. Whether the Internet survives is a different question; I think — hope — that it will, but time will tell.

What about librarians and librarianship and “the values that librarianship supports”? Recognize that these shouldn’t necessarily get lumped together. It’s certainly possible to defend “the values that librarianship supports” yet not be a librarian or an information professional, and it’s possible to defend those values and still think that Google Book Search is consistent with them. (After all, in the vast majority of information policy debates, I think that Siva and I are arguing on the same side.) I’m not a professional librarian but I’ve used academic libraries at several pretty good universities (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, as well as at Pitt), and I like to think that one big point of librarianship is putting information in the hands of patrons, so that patrons can do with it as they wish. Not only do I not see Google interfering with that, I see Google supporting that. People — patrons — will find information; in my view that’s an enduring truth, and Google Book Search won’t prevent that from happening, and librarians and Google Book Search are complements in that pursuit, not substitutes. Have academic librarians sold out by not building and controlling a “book search” facility with their own university resources? If their mission is largely to deliver the content, I don’t see it.

But there is the question of “accountability.” I don’t think that’s the right word, actually; I think that the better word is “transparency.” To me, accountability implies that if library users don’t like what librarians are doing, then users can arrange to change the world to prevent librarians and libraries from doing that, and I don’t see how that happens, except at a margin that we haven’t approached. Transparency means that we can see what librarians are doing, even if we can’t do anything about it. Siva’s right to argue that when searches begin, librarians and librarianship are unquestionably more transparent than Google Book Search.

But does transparency end there, and should it? I look at this issue through my robustness lens, and I have to suspect that library patrons aren’t so passive that they will, ordinarily, simply take search results and live with them as is. I don’t do that with librarians; I don’t expect people to do that with Google Book Search. Search and information retrieval is iterative, and the process isn’t just the search algorithm (human, or automated). Search processes involve the patron, too. To me, transparency is a product of that process, and it runs from beginning to end. It’s not a static quality of the searcher.

Could Google Book Search be more transparent — could the process of search be more transparent — than it is today? I threw in a “folksonomy” suggestion in my last Google post, but I didn’t really mean it; now I’ve changed my mind. Google Maps has a build-it yourself feature; in Pittsburgh, a blogospheric colleague of mine recently used that to put together something really cool. Clearly, if Google Book Search had a similar property, so that people could tag and share searches — build their own classifications, in other words — Google Book Search would be vastly more transparent than it is today.

That doesn’t solve some other problems that Siva points to — privacy and security of individual searches, for example — and it doesn’t answer the criticism that librarians at Michigan, Harvard, and Stanford have let us down with a bad deal. But does the proposal go part of the way to curing the problem of Google’s “secrecy”? I think it may.