2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Google Goes to the Library

If the ten sample books from the University of Michigan that Google has placed online to demonstrate the project are any indication, reading an entire book will be difficult. First, finding digital books is not easy; web surfers have to know the magic words. To see if Google has a digital book on a topic of interest, the search terms must be prefaced with “books about.” For example, go to www.google.com and search for “books about books and culture.” Near the top of the search results, next to a book icon, a list of titles appears. One of the choices, Books and Culture, by Hamilton Wright Mabie, is a volume from Michigan’s library. The other options are new books from publishers that have authorized Google to place their texts online. Clicking the Books and Culture link will bring up a rasterized image of the first page of the 1907 edition of Mabie’s book, a search tool, and display options that include “Buy this book” and “Find this book in a library.” You can also search or browse the book from this page.

One of the interesting aspects of Google’s scanning process is how individual the books are. This particular copy of Books and Culture belonged to Dr. Frederick T. Wright, who donated the book to the Michigan library in 1936, a fact noted long-ago on the table of contents. Navigating toward the front of the book—a process that is rather cumbersome compared to flipping real pages, even with a high-speed Internet connection—reveals a gift inscription to Dr. Wright. He received the book as a Christmas gift in 1908. I wonder what Dr. Wright, or the mysterious A.B.F. who gave him the book nearly a century ago, would think about this particular copy becoming one of the first volumes in one of the most ambitious library projects in history.

While Dr. Wright’s copy of Books and Culture may prove to be a landmark volume in the history of the World Wide Web—if Google’s aspirations are realized—the book points out the limitations of the technology. The digitization project and this book received international press coverage. Yet until I began to research this article, it seems no one had noticed that Google’s online copy is missing four pages, including two in the first chapter. It seems likely that no one had actually read the book online. Doing so requires a lot of scrolling up and down and bothersome waits while each page loads.

While neither Google project leaders nor the University of Michigan’s Wilkin were aware of the problem, Wilkin is confident that the problem of missing pages will be solved with software and engineering. In an e-mail, he wrote, “This is a pretty clear example of the sort of manual, human process” that Google used at first, and missing pages are “less likely to occur in the highly automated processes that are underway. So, in short, I think that [Google] may have missed the page or they may have ‘misplaced’ the page, but that these are the sorts of things that you’re not likely to see outside of the early demonstration project.”

The system is clearly improving over time. When I first looked at Books and Culture in December, the library locator wasn’t activated. When I tried it again in March, I was amazed to find that after entering my zip code, Google delivered a huge list of local libraries where I could find a physical copy of the book, as well as links to the libraries’ web sites. Pretty impressive stuff.

Searching for “books about True Stories of Pioneer Life” will show you the other side of the coin. The search returns a page of “snippets” (Google’s term) from this 1924 book by Mary C. Moulton. They’re basically useless. For instance, searching for “death” turns up this typically ragged tidbit: “…her name, for according to his English ideas he was the head of the family and thought all the property should be in his name. His early death, however, left her in need of her share of her father’s estate, but it had been…”

The book is presumably still under copyright, and the snippets are Google’s way of ensuring that the search results fall under the fair use provision of copyright law. Google has said it is in negotiations with publishers to reveal more of the copyrighted books from the libraries. But for now, the partial results make the “Find this book in a library” and “Buy this book” links look that much more enticing.

For older titles, Google offers links to Alibris, Abebooks, and Google’s product-search service, Froogle. “We’ve actually been working with these guys,” Brian Elliott, chief operating officer at Alibris told me. He said that a few books had already been sold to people who linked through the service, suggesting that access to digital versions of books would inspire readers to buy copies of the books. Richard Davies, PR and publicity manager for Abebooks, said his employer shared Alibris’s view. “Google is very, very powerful in any sphere of the world. But since we’re an Internet-based business, we’re very aware of it… We do not think Google is a threat to rare booksellers. People will still want to touch and feel a book, and that cannot be done over the Internet. This project could be a massive shot in the arm for the rare-book business. Time will tell, and we’re monitoring the situation very closely.”

So even if all the books in the world are available online, there will still be a book trade. Why? “The answer is, in two words, commodity fetishism,” joked John Durham of Bolerium Books in San Francisco, a shop that specializes in American social movements, or, to paraphrase Durham, the commoditization of anticommodity movements. “The market will still be there for a certain segment who wants to possess the physical object.”

John LaPine, owner of Printer’s Row Fine and Rare Books, an open shop in Chicago that sells online through Abebooks, thinks Google’s library project will expand the market and turn a whole new generation on to the tender charms of antiquarian tomes. “I was looking at what Google is doing, and it’s fabulous,” he said. “I’m forty-seven, so I remember the days when I was in high school, when I was in college, when it took half a day going through the university catalog system to find the information I wanted. The Internet has brought it to anybody who has the ability to read and access to a computer. What will occur with this new system is it will foster a completely new generation of people who will be—once they get familiar with it—so enamored of the content that they’ll want to obtain that book. This is going to spread the bibliomaniacal virus.”

One member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, who wished to remain anonymous, was far less sanguine. He spoke about the $20 to $50 books that were once the lifeblood of the general antiquarian trade. “The common book is now a $2 book online,” he said. “We’re even throwing books away; it’s our dirty little secret.” If access to books on Google reduces demand, it will further drive down prices.

Abebooks’s Davies argued against that idea, giving the example of someone looking for out an out-of-print car manual who might be able to find a specific bit of information online, but in the end would want to buy the book to put in the glove compartment. The project, he said, would make that manual easier to find, and therefore easier to buy. Elliott at Alibris concurred. “As these guys make more material available online and make it easier to find, you actually build an audience for the materials.”

Paul LeClerc at the New York Public Library offered a similar view. Digitization “can indeed be transformative in the way scholarship is conducted,” he told me. “But it doesn’t replace reading. Nothing really replaces holding the physical object in your hands.” All of the libraries were anxious to assure me that the book would remain central to their missions. As Peter Kosewski at Harvard said, the library’s collaboration with Google does not mark “a retreat from our commitment to the physical object.”

Part of that caution reflects how new Google and the Internet are. As a company, Google has existed for just over six years, and trusting it to maintain a digital library, which may or may not generate sufficient revenue to please future shareholders, is risky. If profits start to drop, will Google ditch the $150 million–plus project? Who’ll stop the company?

John LaPine of Printer’s Row Books observed, “CompuServe was once the standard [online]. AOL was once the standard. And that was what, seven years ago? I have to think something like that will happen to Google.” Richard Ring, reference and acquisitions librarian for the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, thinking along the same lines, said, “I have an inherent distrust of online systems. When the system goes down, it’s gone. It’s the ultimate ephemera.”

How Google’s digitization effort will affect the general used-book market and libraries remains to be seen. It may decrease the demand for some books, driving prices down and consigning more books to the rubbish heap. Or it could spark a new generation of book lovers. But while we wait to find out, there’s something to celebrate in the pure possibility and sheer audacity of it. It’s not going to bring back the Book Rack, but I look forward to an Internet that’s content goes a little deeper than flash animation and pop-up ads.

Andrew Edwards is a freelance writer living in New York.