Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Google Proposition - Challenging our Identity, Furthering Our Mission?

Imagine this: Google, whose mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful", realizes it’s too expensive or just not worth it to fight the fight to scan and make copyrighted books available online. Instead they acquire one or more publishing houses (who perhaps can be had for a reasonable price because their major media parents are disappointed with their contributions to the corporate bottom line) with the intention of providing unlimited simultaneous, free access to texts online while "monetizing" that access via advertising in the same way they have very successfully monetized search results. 

Then being as resource rich as they are, Google attracts writers and book producers by offering better compensation in exchange for the right make their to-be-published works immediately and "universally accessible" online. In addition to monetizing book access, Google claims it is doing “good” by making this information "universally accessible and useful" free of charge to readers.

To see if this was fiscally possible, I checked Google's August 7, 2007 balance sheet as reported on Yahoo Finance. Google has a "capital surplus" (or cash) of over $12.50 billion and net tangible assets of over $17.50 billion.

Random House has been called “the world's largest English-language general trade book publisher" and perhaps the biggest publisher in the United States. In 1998, they were purchased by German media company Bertelsmann AG for $1.4 billion. 

Since then the asking price for Random House (if it were up for sale) could conceivably have quadrupled, quintupled or sextupled, but even if that were the case, Google theoretically would have enough cash to purchase Random House and with the resources leftover, purchase 2 more Youtube's at $2 billion a piece. (And let's not even get into discussing the fine line of credit they would be able to take out with any lender worth their salt...)

A more likely scenario would see Google purchasing a smaller publishing house. They could then follow the strategy outlined above: pulling best selling writers and book producers away from other publishing houses by offering better compensation in exchange for the right make their works immediately and "universally accessible" online - which could be attractive to writers and book producers. In time, Google, and other copycat competitors, buy up individual "legacy" publishing houses, gaining their backlist titles and negotiating the rights to make them freely and "universally accessible" online.

Eventually, the “immediately and universally accessible” model becomes the dominant publishing model, although perhaps initially only for adult books.

If this happened, how would libraries respond? and should we actually be lobbying Google and others to follow this path? 

There would be justifiable concern about Google (and other for-profit organizations) gatekeeping and controlling access to the world's published material (a significant concern!), but not withstanding the current digital divide, it is difficult to argue that the freely, immediately universally accessible model would not do more, faster, to give more people access to information than libraries ever could going forward.

Would we protest, perhaps out of a short-sighted desire to preserve ourselves as an institution as we have traditionally existed?


Would we embark on some kind of "transformational change" (as many before me have called it), satisfied our mission of providing freely available information is substantially (if not perfectly acheived - perhaps negotiating electronic and hard copy fail safes to maintain access in case Google and others become "evil") and reorient and redevote ourselves using freed up resources to address other community needs - hosting cultural and/or social centers, focusing on instructing and becoming "People's Universities", navigating the available information etc....

Harvey Hahn, my collegue at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, has suggested the same "freely available" publishing model could be applied to databases as well (those available throught Thomson, ProQuest, Gale etc). He suggests that making that information (journal articles, legal info, health info, dissertations, etc.) freely available, could have a greater beneficial impact.

Could a non-profit publisher thrive and sustain itself by using a freely and immediately available model right now? and should libraries be involved in that? My best guess is that it would be difficult, but so many Internet organizations (Wikipedia, Ebay, Craigslist etc...) seem to be able to sustain so many activities that seem unlikely on the face of them.

Discussing the "Google Proposition" as a real possibility gives us a better chance to proactively affect its potential unfolding. If we don't, we risk being caught flat-footed, perhaps reacting in some knee-jerk, but less influential way - akin to "shouting at the river", objecting to its course as it flows by us.

What do you think?



Anonymous said...

"Would we protest..."

You're kidding, right? The answer to any question that involves change and librarians is always YES, we would protest.

Anonymous said...

That is a sad but true statement. But I think that is changing with the next generation of librarians, archivists, and other information professionals.

It seems that is human nature; to resist any change because of discomfort on some level. But I especially feel this way with librarians. I recently graduated (in '06) with my MLIS and my first year out has been an eye-opener. I went from the lofty ideals of academia which spoke of social activism, providing your community the cultural resources that they need and want, etc.

It really disappoints me that a profession that is so progressive in theory is so laced with naysayers who feel they have the ethical superiority to judge the importance of new technologies and new ideas.

Frankly, I feel that some information professionals just don't want to learn anything or process new information that really challenges them. Which is pretty ironic.

Talking Books Librarian said...

I'm not sure how related this is to the discussion, but something I have pondered is how many librarians use sites like Google or Amazon when searching for information about books, rather than using the library OPAC. (because the library OPAC is not as efficient or user friendly in some cases)

To me, this is a sad commentary on the library OPAC's, when Amazon or Google provides quicker and better information than the library catalogs. How can we expect patrons to use the library OPAC's at this rate?

Owen said...

Let me start by saying I am not a librarian. I am a digital media developer and communications theorist. What you've described here is akin to iTunes and the "death of the music industry." It's not exactly the same, but it's close.

I must say that it is refreshing to hear this kind of thinking. Google's "river" is changing many things. I use Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Scpreadsheets, and Google Presentations. There are plusses and minuses to these applications, but the 700-pound gorilla that occupies the office tools space isn't without its own flaws.

What impresses me most is the thinking about "how can we grow with this," rather than the reactionary "how do we defend our turf?" I think librarians are poised to initiate some serious change in the realm of the "lofty ideals of academia...[and]... providing your community the cultural resources that they need and want, etc." I would take heed of McLuhan's cautionary tale wrapped up in his idea about rear-view mirrorism (the application of new technologies in old ways).

What is vital, is the implementation of the new thought. The new ideas that are coming out of programs like the MLIS. The world needs people who will unstick the logjam that is blocking both our social information systems and our educations systems.

I worked for some time in the Ministry of Education in my home province (I hail from Canada) and I too was dismayed to see and hear all these great ideas about improving public education flounder because they required massive change. MASSIVE CHANGE.

You folks are at the hub of a huge systemic map that could potentially create significant waves of change.

The sad truth is, that if you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem. We are seeing all manner of information solutions that are rising to fill the gaps. Wickipedia, Amazon, Google, IMDB... all are free publicly available sources of "good enough" information. Where are the librarians? Are you embracing, integrating, and promoting these implementations of your ideals? Or are you secretly jealous fooling yourself into discounting these sources as cheap, low-quality, knock-offs... :)

You folks aren't yelling at the river... You are in the river, and in my humblest opinion, it is time to sink or swim. I apologize if that makes anyone uncomfortable. (I am Canadian after all, and we tend to be polite.)