Friday, March 23, 2007

Who's afraid of Google...?

Today I read an article in the German newspaper 'DIE ZEIT' entitled with 'Who's afraid of Google'. It was about Google's project of digitizing the entire printed books of the world and their deal with the 'Bayerische Staatsbibliothek' (the 2nd largest scientific library in Germany). Several scientists and librarians were asked about what they think about Google's plans and its effects on the culture in general.
In general the opinion was more critical than enthusiastic (and I can follow their arguments). On the one hand, Google offers some kind of democratozation of the reading culture (meaning that in the end all books might be available for everybody at any time). But, Google as a philanthropist...? Business first! This means, clicks are money...and thus, it's all about money. The main criticism of the community was that Google will get a monopoly concerning all our reading. Thus, the obvious next step (from some pessimistic point of view) is censorship (or at least 'filtering'). Just imagine Google to be in a position that dictates what we are reading (I mean concerning the content). Then, there is no democracy at all....
The other complaint of the librarians was concerning the poor quality of Google scanning the books. There are examples of 'thumbs' inside scans (btw I was not able to find an image proof of that...but I confess that I was searching with Google...) and the offered resolution of 300 dpi for color/grayscale (for handwritten codices as e.g. the 'Sachsenspiegel' this is not enough) and 600 dpi for print is also subject of criticism.

Speaking as a scientist, I'm really happy that almost all scientific literature (at least for me as being a computer scientist) is available in the world wide web and that it can be accessed by searching Google. I don't want to stay in libraries for hours, discussing with librarians, filling out forms, copying articles from books, and maybe waiting weeks or months before I am able to access certain literature. But...(and now be honest)...who of you does not print out an article for reading (and commenting, annotating, etc...).
Google print maybe will offer the possibility to read the very first edition of 'Robinson Crusoe' while sunbathing at the beach...but will you? For sure, we all LOVE books. But, do we also 'love' a computer screen? You might touch books, feel (and scent) the old leather of a binding, browsing through worn pages, making annotations and remarks....just having the ability to put content (knowledge) into some matter (the book), take it everywhere you want to, being your companion...and you know where it is (on the shelf, on your nightstand, in the bathroom...). Do you think, having a book just on some screen is something similar (concerning your sensation). You switch the screen off...and the book is gone. Of course, it's somewhere in the digital universe...but not for real on your nightstand when you put out the light.....

In the end, I don't think that Google print will be as 'mean' as being projected by many librarians. Of course it will bring some change (and also some positive change). But it will not 'extinguish' the book. Publishers and booksellers will keep on selling books and we will also keep on reading them. Monopolies are not democratic (...some contradiction ahead). Therefore, we should also support all the other digitizing projects, as e.g. the digitizing project of the 'Börsenverein des deutsche Buchhandels' or the 'European Library' and their 'Europeana' project that will be launched by the end of march.