By Meredith Farkas | December 20, 2004
The ALA president-elect, Michael Gorman, has expressed his opinion on Google print and book digitization in an op-ed piece in today’s Newsday. He essentially thinks that the Google deal is a lot of hype and that putting most of these books online really won’t offer that much to users:
The nub of the matter lies in the distinction between information (data, facts, images, quotes and brief texts that can be used out of context) and recorded knowledge (the cumulative exposition found in scholarly and literary texts and in popular nonfiction). When it comes to information, a snippet from Page 142 might be useful. When it comes to recorded knowledge, a snippet from Page 142 must be understood in the light of pages 1 through 141, or the text was not worth writing and publishing in the first place.
I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge.
I also favor digitizing such library holdings as unique manuscript collections, or photographs, when seeing the object itself is the point (this is reportedly the deal the New York Public Library has made with Google). I believe, however, that enormous databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.
He does raise some good points (though I don’t necessarily agree that digitizing scholarly books is quite so futile). Librarians should really think about what they are digitizing before going into this. Just because Google is willing to throw money at it doesn’t mean every book is worth being digitized. I would have been much happier to see that rare and valuable (in the sholarly research sense) materials from special collections departments were being digitized from dozens of libraries than to hear that the holdings of only five libraries were being digitized. Still, digitization is still so young, and we all (including Google) are bound to make mistakes and learn from them. The best practices are still being developed, but I do think some selection criteria should be imposed on the choice of works being digitized.