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(I was going to serve this up as part of the Sunday Roast, but as I got typing I realised I had more that I wanted to say than could be fitted in a snappy two line summary. This is a topic I felt was deserving of its own post.)
There has been a lot of kurfuffle lately about Googles plan to digitize every piece of information on the face of the planet and make it searchable, with a lot of good arguments presented on both sides of the debate. There has also been a load of complete dross spouted by proponents of both camps.
I figured it was about time I made my position clear.
I love reading. Nothing will ever persuade me that curling up in bed with a cup of tea and a good (print version) book isn’t one of the most pleasurable experiences known to mankind. Curling up with the laptop and an e-book just isn’t the same – eyestrain aside, there is the constant worry that I’ll spill the cup of tea, as I have been known to do on occasion. Books and bedsheets dry out. Â£2000 laptops tend not to. I find it hard to ever think of a time when I won’t want to be surrounded by books, if for no other reason than access to my entire library should not depend on remembering to charge my laptop battery. Nor, computer-saints preserve us, will it all be wiped out when (not if, when) my hard drive explodes. Barring fires and certain other natural disasters, my physical library should survive, and you can be pretty sure that a computer wouldn’t survive such events either. It is very telling that you can still read books written before the invention of the printing press, but frequently run into problems with media only a few years old if it is in the wrong format.
All of which might lead you to think that I am averse to the idea of digitising books.
You would be wrong. I think knowledge should be shared and, especially with more obscure texts, the average person simply doesn’t have access to a physical copy. My current research would have been impossible if I had had to rely on inter-library-loaning every single obscure journal article, instead of logging onto JStor or Google Scholar. The number of times I have read a print-article and gone ‘oh, if only I could search within the text for this one word…’ As a matter of fact my entire current thesis is based on the idea of open access to information. And Google Print isn’t really about reading novels online. It is far better suited to the person in search of information. Where is this quote from? Who wrote that? What were the findings of the 1936 Glastonbury Historical Society? *1*
I can see why there are some rumblings of discontent in the publishing industry – this is just one more in a long line of nails in the coffin of the conventional publication model *2*. As it stands, publishing houses pay authors a sum for the rights to their work, they publish it, charge people to buy copies, and (hopefully) get a profit. The mechanisms currently out there for publishers to get their money back when things are published/accessible online are clunky, often obtrusive, and wholly over-reliant on software/hardware dependent solutions that almost certainly won’t work in a year or so.
It is understandable why the thought of free access to the content of their books sends these people into a tailspin, but at the same time, just think on the benefits. Number one being FREE advertising for the work. Equate it to people dipping into the book in the bookstore to decide if they like it before they purchase it, because that is what most people are going to use it for. Finding information, trying it on for size, before committing to a fairly non-trivial purchase. It is one of the more galling features of modern life when you buy a text book online and get it delivered only to find that the one thing you needed it for is 1) not mentioned in the book or 2) only mentioned once or 3) completely and utterly wrong (all of which has happened to me more than once).
Publishers don’t charge people to get books out of the local library which, you have to agree, is one of the major attractions of the local lending library in this day and age. Is what Google Print trying to do really so very different?
I am grossly over simplifying, and gleefully ignoring copyright, and many other issues, which will keep legions of lawyers for both sides very happy for a very long time. At its simplest, the publishing houses are fighting tooth and nail for their very existence.
Rather than fighting, they might be better served accepting this new way of doing things, and evolving into something new that makes the most of the brave new world. The Internet, online access, and the drive for transparent access to information aren’t going to go away any time soon. I am not sold on the idea that Google are the best people to be in charge of this. They have shown a few tendencies which indicate they are not as appreciative of the whole ‘transparent data’ idea as they claim to be. But it is being done, right here and right now, and hiding heads like so many ostriches really isn’t the solution, nor is trying to freeze progress in its tracks.
A phrase I really hate does spring to mind right now – you can’t make an omlette without cracking some eggs. They said that VHS would kill the movie industry. Hollywood seems to have done alright. Give Google Print a chance. Or, better yet, start your own programs. Just because Google have decided to do it this way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way.
*1*I’ve had to track down that last piece of information before, and it took me about a week, searching through ten different libraries, to find something that might have taken five minutes if the data had been online, not in a water-damaged box in the basement of the GHS’ HQ which hadn’t actually been catalogued. I only actually found the data because of a chance phone conversation with the chap who cleaned the office. Long story.Back
*2*Oooh, there’s some gloriously mixed metaphors!Back
Google Print, publishing