Brian Appleyard, The Times (London), 21 January 2007

COULD THIS BE THE FINAL CHAPTER IN THE LIFE OF THE BOOK?

The world's libraries are heading for the internet, says Bryan Appleyard. If this means we lose touch with real books and treat their content as 'information', civilisation is the loser

‘The majority of information,” said Jens Redmer, director of Google Book Search in Europe, “lies outside the internet.” Redmer was speaking last week at Unbound, an invitation-only conference at the New York Public Library (NYPL). It was a groovy, bleeding-edge-of-the-internet kind of affair. There was Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail, a book about the new business economics of the net. There was Arianna Huffington, grand panjandrum of both the blogosphere and smart East Coast society.

But this wasn’t just another jolly. There were also publishers and Google execs, two groups of people who might one day soon be fighting for their professional lives before the Supreme Court.

For Unbound was another move in a strange, complex and frequently obscure war that is being fought over the digitisation of the great libraries of the world. The details of this war may seem baffling, but there is nothing baffling about what is at stake. Intellectual property — intangibles like ideas, knowledge and information — is, in the globalised world, the most valuable of all assets. China may be booming on the basis of manufacturing, but, overwhelmingly, it makes things invented and designed in the West or Japan. Intellectual property is the big difference between the developing and developed worlds.

But intellectual property rights and the internet are uneasy bedfellows. Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The words “universally accessible” carry the implicit threat that nobody can actually own or earn revenue from any information since it will all be just out there.

Furthermore, Redmer’s point indicates that, for Google, the mission has barely left base camp. Himalayas of information are still waiting to be conquered. And the highest peaks of all are the great libraries of the world, the repositories of the 100m or more books that have been produced since Johann Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century.

In December 2004, Google announced its assault on these peaks. It had made a deal with five libraries — with the NYPL and at the universities of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford — to scan their stocks, making their contents available online via Google Book Search (books.google.com). Ultimately, it is thought, some 30m volumes will be involved. Microsoft, meanwhile, has made a deal with the British Library to scan 100,000 books — 25m pages — this year alone. Google has now scanned 1m books.

The first thing to be said is that Google Book Search, though still in its “beta” or unfinalised form, is an astonishing mechanism. Putting my own name in came up with 626 references and gave me immediate access to passages containing my name in books, most of which were quite unknown to me. Moreover, clicking on one of these references brings up an image of the actual page in question.

But the second thing to be said is that I could read whole passages of my books of which I own the copyright. At once a huge intellectual property issue looms. The Americans are ploughing ahead with this, scanning in material both in and out of copyright. The British — at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the British Library — are being more cautious, allowing only the scanning of out-of-copyright books. This may, of course, mean nothing, since the big American libraries will, like the Bodleian and the British Library, contain every book published in English, so they will all ultimately be out there on the net.

American publishers are not happy. Before its 2004 announcement, Google had been doing deals with individual publishers to scan their books. But digitising the libraries would seem to render these deals defunct. Furthermore, since Google is acquiring copyright material at no cost, it seems to be treating books quite differently from all other media. It is prepared to pay for video and music, but not, apparently, for books. The Google defence is that their Book Search system is covered by the legal concept of “fair dealing”. No more than 20% of a copyright book will be available, the search is designed to show just relevant passages, and it will provide links to sites where the book can be bought.

Unimpressed, the Authors Guild, supported by the Association of American Publishers, has started a class action suit against Google. A deal may yet be done, but neither side sounds in a compromising mood, and it looks likely that this will go all the way to the Supreme Court, whose ruling on this case may prove momentous.

But still, we are only in the foothills of the library digitisation issue. When Google made its 2004 announcement, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, experienced “neither distress nor irritation at the project. Just a healthy jolt”. He welcomed the idea that “a treasure trove of knowledge, accumulated for centuries, would be opened up to the benefit of all,” but he was also “seized by anxiety”. Driven by this anxiety, he wrote a short book, Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge.

Though he declines to talk of “a crusade or a cultural war”, the book is a clear case of “aux armes, citoyens!” The citizens in question are, in this case, European rather than just French, for Jeanneney sees the Google project as an act of American cultural hegemony. He has won the backing of Chirac for a project to develop a European search engine to rival Google, the so-called “Airbus solution” — the creation of Airbus was a deliberate attempt to combat the ascendancy of Boeing in aircraft manufacture.

Jeanneney says that Google is not what it seems. Its search results are biased by commercial and cultural pressures. He has a point. Try this: go to Google Book Search and enter Gustave Flaubert. The first results are full of English translations of Madame Bovary.

The books of the English-speaking world are given overwhelming priority. Equally, Google’s main search engine produces paid-for sites. Google is a profit machine. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking it is an entirely neutral source of information.

But there are even deeper issues revolving around the distinction between information and knowledge. “A search engine,” says John Sutherland, professor of English at UCL, “is not an index.”

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An index is the work of a mind with knowledge, search engine results are the product of an algorithm with information. Parents will already have seen the power of the algorithm. Google has supplanted the textbook as the source of homework research.

Furthermore, with the advance of library digitisation, students will increasingly get through their degrees on screen rather than in libraries. Indeed, Bill Gates expects in the very near future that Microsoft will be able to give all undergraduates a $400 hand-held device that will contain all the text books they need for their course. We are, it seems, about to lose physical contact with books, the primary experience and foundation of civilisation for the last 500 years.

Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, refuses to see this in apocalyptic terms. With 100,000 of her books being scanned by Microsoft this year, she regards the ultimate digitisation of the library’s entire 150m-item collection (journals included) as “a wonderful outcome, though I suspect I’ll be long dead by then”.

Brindley disagrees with Jeanneney about having to fight off American hegemony. She points out that search engines are still in their infancy. Google has competitors that are bound to eat into its monopoly. Furthermore, improved technologies will make search results more like indexes, working more precisely as knowledge providers than simple information dispensers. The British Library has no choice, she believes, but to go with this technological flow. The alternative is to become little more than “a book museum”.

Back at the NYPL, David Worlock of Electronic Publishing Services said, “Ultimately it’s not up to Google or the publishers to decide how books will be read.

It’s the readers who will have the final say.”

No, it is the teachers who will have the final say. They will determine whether people will read for information, knowledge or, ultimately, wisdom. If they fail and their pupils read only for information, then we are in deep trouble. For the net doesn’t educate and the mind must be primed to deal with its informational deluge. On that priming depends the future of civilisation. How we handle the digitising of the libraries will determine who we are to become.