< The Infinite Shelf


Friday, March 27, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In 2004, Google began digitizing the collections of major libraries for a service it calls Google Book Search. Soon after, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers joined forces for a lawsuit on behalf of copyright holders, who were never asked for permission, thank you, and wanted fair compensation. Well, the parties have since reached a settlement, putting Google in a position to be a modern Library of Alexandria with full texts of millions of titles online. And libraries are free, right? Um, not this one. Robert Darnton is director of the bricks and mortar Harvard University Library, and he worries about the cost of subscribing to Google Book Search. Robert, welcome to OTM.

ROBERT DARNTON: Thank you for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there are roughly three kinds of books – those in the public domain, those that are under copyright and in print, and those that are under copyright and out of print, and there’s a vast number of those in the latter category that no one would have access to if Google didn't digitize them and put them online.

ROBERT DARNTON: And Google will make these books available everywhere in the country, maybe someday everywhere in the world. So imagine a small library in, let's say, a small town in the Midwest. By subscribing to Google Book Search, readers there will have access to, well, a library that will be something like the Library of Alexandria - certainly, I think, in a few years, greater than the Library of Congress.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that you admire many of the business practices of Google, but you’re concerned that they may one day impose exorbitant prices, and you cite the example of scholarly journals as a kind of cautionary tale.

ROBERT DARNTON: Well, once libraries subscribed to some very advanced journal in molecular biology, say, its constituents found that they couldn't do without that journal, and so the publisher would increase the price five percent, ten percent each year. And pretty soon the price was simply spiraling out of control. Some of these journals cost 30,000 dollars a year. If you have to pay these prices, you have to cut back elsewhere in your library budget. And that’s what libraries have done, cut back radically on buying books.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The information that is in those periodic scientific journals, that information is essential if you’re going to work in those fields. You know, that certainly can't be said about the vast majority of the material that will be on Google Book Search. Moreover, Google won't have exclusive rights to this information. You can still get it other places.

ROBERT DARNTON: I don't agree. In fact, I think once people get used to this fabulous access, they will say, this is a necessity of life. Maybe not one particular book, but the general service of having at your fingertips the largest library in the world, this is too good to be believed, and it could result in what we call “cocaine pricing.” That is, you sample it for a while and you find that the service is great. Then it becomes a bit more expensive and still more expensive, and nothing can stop the ratcheting up of the cost. Now, I don't believe that Google is out to do evil at all. I just think that it’s a monopoly, and monopolies have a way of charging monopoly prices.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, because the settlement evidently does not allow for actual competition to Google.

ROBERT DARNTON: That’s correct. There is something called a “most favored nation” clause. That means that if any competitor came along, that competitor could not be offered more favorable terms than the terms that Google already has.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And though Google, as you say, may not do evil, you do note that the purpose of the settlement was to, quote, “maximize revenues” and not to facilitate the spread of information.

ROBERT DARNTON: The phrase “maximize revenues” actually appears in the settlement. Then when they begin to talk about how prices will be set, they base it on, in the case of institutional subscriptions, roughly the number of students, let's say, in a university, and secondly, on what they call “comparable products and services,” which beats me, because nothing will be comparable. So they talk about principles for pricing, but the talk is so vague. What will happen if someone else buys out Google? We have to provide for the future, not simply trust the good guys running Google in the present.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write about the idea of a national library from a personal, almost emotional point of view, and you've written about our relationship to books and letters in terms of what you call “the enlightenment dream.”

ROBERT DARNTON: Well, the enlightenment dream, which you see everywhere in the works of the philosophers of the enlightenment of the 18th century, is a dream in which the printing press is put to service in order to spread knowledge. I think ordinary Americans actually believe in it. They think that knowledge will empower you, enrich your life, and that it ought to be basically free. That dream is something that I think was foremost at the founding of our republic. And well, okay, I suppose I am emotional about it. [LAUGHS] I love books, and I really think that there is a democratic quality to digitization. But if those supplying it are simply trying to maximize profits, the whole thing could turn sour.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Darnton is director of the Harvard University Library. His article, Google and the Future of Books, was published in February in The New York Review of Books.