Monday, March 28, 2011

Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything

I wrote this event summary for the DCLA "Capital Librarian" newsletter and thought I'd share it here as well. It was a very interesting talk, especially in light of the rejection of the Google Books settlement last week. The event was recorded, so hopefully the Library of Congress will post the video online soon.

Siva Vaidhyanathan spoke at the Library of Congress on March 25 about his new book, The Googlization of Everything, and his proposed “Human Knowledge Project.” He opened by discussing the recent rejection of the Google Books settlement by Judge Denny Chin. Judge Chin rejected the settlement not so much because of its content, but because a class action settlement was not the right venue to make sweeping policy decisions about copyright. Vaidhyanathan agreed that Congress should be making policy changes, not private parties negotiating through the court system.
Vaidhyanathan sees the rejection of the settlement as an opportunity for librarians. Now is the time to take stock of what libraries and users want and see if we can find a better way to achieve these goals. Vaidhyanathan’s new book, The Googlization of Everything, was initially inspired by the Google Books Project. Early on, he was uncomfortable with Google’s approach to copyright and worried that they were putting too much weight on the principle of fair use. It was inevitable that Google would be sued, and if their defense failed it could create a dangerous precedent that could threaten the very concept of fair use.
Throughout his presentation Vaidhyanathan stressed that companies aren’t stable, long-term organizations. They are usually very short lived and those that do survive undergo huge transformations. What will happen to the Google Books Project years from now as Google’s own priorities and values change? Why were stable, centuries old institutions like universities and libraries turning to a transitory company instead of scanning books themselves?
Google’s lofty mission statement is to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But unlike libraries, archives, and museums, the Google Books Project was not undertaken for the public good. It is a project to improve Google’s profit margin and in reality it is a bookstore, not a library.
On balance, Vaidhyanathan thinks Google has a positive effect on the world and on our day-to-day lives. But we still need to think critically about our relationship with Google and its activities. Google is a good company, but it’s still a company. The Google Books Project is also generally a good idea, but it has many problems, such as low-quality scanning and bad metadata. Google also routinely violates core values of librarianship like user confidentiality.
Vaidhyanathan sees “Public Failure” as the root cause of the Google Books Project. State institutions fail when they are not given enough resources to carry out their roles in society. When the state fails, private companies step in, as has happened with privatized prisons and private charter schools. Our national system of libraries and universities didn’t have the resources to create a universal digital library, so Google stepped in to do it for us.
There is an opportunity now for libraries to step up and do it better through projects like the Open Book Alliance, the Hathi Trust, and the new Digital Public Library of America. Such a project are based on the core values of librarianship and the accumulated knowledge of the profession.
Vaidhyanathan hopes we’ll follow the model of the Human Genome Project. Initially attempts to map the human genome were publically financed, but underfunded and fragmented. Then the Celera Corporation announced that it planned to privately map the genome at a speed the public efforts could not match. Celera planned to patent gene sequences and use the genome for private profit. In response the scientific community mobilized politically and launched a massive global project to produce an open access genome that would be freely available to all researchers. The public sequence was published in the same week as the Celera sequence. Librarians need to mobilize and work together in the same way to create our own Human Knowledge Project. It will be a long-term effort, but Vaidhyanathan is optimistic that it will be possible and a true universal library can be created; one which will be publically financed, based on the core values of librarianship, and freely available worldwide.


  1. Nice post, Laura.

    I agree that Google stepped in to do something libraries couldn't/wouldn't, and I think the orphan works debate is telling -- libraries are too respectful of copyright to make the claim that Google tried to, and for better or for worse, now it seems like no one can make it. I'm glad Vaidhyanathan is optimistic, but I have to say, I still don't see how we're getting around that one.

    (Also, because I feel like I never give our alma mater much credit for stuff like this: Let the record show that I first got interested in this issue because of 618, and I understand it better because of that class. It's true.)

  2. Vaidhyanathan thinks Congress will get around to sorting out the orphan works problem... eventually. A big component of his "Human Knowledge Project" is political lobbying for laws to make a universal library viable/possible. I am no nearly so optimistic about that since the recent history of copyright legislation is so dismal. It seems pretty unlikely that we'll get a sensible solution to orphan works anytime soon. Congress seems more likely to extend copyright for 500 years than expand the public domain.

    (And, yes, thank you 618 for helping me understand copyright! And Jill Hurst-Wahl)