Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Thoughts about Google's library plan

Michael Gorman, the dean of library services at California State University, Fresno, and president-elect of the American Library Association, wrote an article for on the Google digitization project. Two quotes stand out to me:

Are you going to print the book, and end up with 500 unbound sheets?

I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering
information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge.

One of the things that has stood in the way of e-books is that people prefer to curl up with a real book. They like the feel of a book, its portability, its low-tech-ness. They like to be able to take notes, highlight, bend corners, and share it with others. They like to read in the bathroom, in bed, on a plane (when electronic devices must be turned off) and outdoors. Books are flexible. How do you gain that same flexibility with an electronic version of a book that has been digitized? Do you end up printing the entire thing (and killing trees)?

Undoubtedly, we read differently online that on paper. I think we skim more, although I don't think it means we learn less. But would access to so many electronic text change -- negatively -- how we learn? Would people become less accustomed to hardcopy texts? Perhaps even less trustful of "real" books? I am not sure of my own thoughts, but I do think we need to consider the long-term effect on how we gather, manipulate and value information.

Gorman advocates digitizing reference books, which are consulted but not read. I have to admit that I used many reference works online and find them very handy. I do wish I had access to more (for free). Perhaps this is not as glamorous as digitize fiction and non-fiction books, but it may be more useful. Time will tell.

What I do know is that Google's efforts should thrust digitization into the spotlight for everyone and open up many conversations. Long-term the technologies and techniques used by Google may help much smaller institutions as they embark on their own digitization projects. For now, I'm sure, those smaller institutions are just in awe.


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