Confessions of a conflicted book worm

As a literary nerd by training and a computer nerd by profession, I confess to feeling very conflicted about the ongoing controversy over the Google Book Search project.

As a literary nerd by training and a computer nerd by profession, I confess to feeling very conflicted about the ongoing controversy over the Google Book Search project.

For those of you out of the know, Google has been scanning and digitizing books of all sorts for almost five years now.

You can find the results at books.google.com.

That site allows internet users to view snippets of works under copyright, or to read through large portions of copyrighted books authorized by the copyright holders, or actually download books that are already in the public domain.

As of this last October, Google claimed to have more than 10 million books scanned and viewable, with more than a million of them freely downloadable.

To give you an idea of how big an achievement this is, consider that the largest single library in the world – the United States Library of Congress – currently has just over 21 million catalogued books.

That means Google has more than half caught up with the Library of Congress, in the short span of just five years.

Its closest competitor in terms of digital books is probably Microsoft’s now-defunct Live Search Books project, which closed shop in the spring of 2008, with something like 1 million downloadable, public domain books available.

Google has accomplished this with some extremely high technology scanning and optical character recognition technology, and by partnering with some of the largest and most distinguished libraries in the world – Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford, for instance.

The publically proclaimed intent of this effort, as announced on Google’s own site, is promising enough: “Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalogue of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.”

Wonderful and heady stuff, that, and I confess that I have become a shameless addict to books.google.com, both for serious educational purposes, and for pure, aimless fun.

Just this week, I downloaded the complete dramatic works of the 17th Century English playwright, John Webster – a writer hard to find in bookstores, but whose best plays can stand up to comparison even with the mature Shakespeare.

I also passed several pleasurable hours browsing through old copies of Life Magazine from 1947, amused by the ads for big, bulky, black and white TV’s promising “the stars up close,” and ad after ad for women’s nylons – the real things having become available at last, I guess, after the years of wartime austerity.

I even got to see, in the June 2, 1947 issue, an ad from Trans World Airline, announcing the first advent of airline radar on all their flights, courtesy of “Howard Hughes and the Electronic Department of Hughes Aircraft Co.”

All these are both mindful and mindless pleasures, but I am also aware that they come at a price.

The provider of all this information and trivia is not a non-profit organization like the volunteers of the Gutenberg project, nor a publicly financed service like my local library, but a very-much-for-profit company.

Whatever its publicly avowed good intentions, this company is finally about turning my attention into money for its stock holders, and about cornering the market on all this wonderful stuff that draws that attention.

It is not for nothing that the United States government, and members of the European Union, have expressed strong reservations about allowing all this wonderful material to fall into the hands of a single, commercialy driven company that already enjoys a worrisome dominance in the information search and retrieval market.

It was only last Friday – Friday the 13th, ominously enough – that Google and its partners in the library project submitted to the US Justice Department their revised proposal for how the public interest in copyright protection and fair remuneration for authors and publishers can be accommodated in their plan.

It is too early to know, yet, what the US Justice Department will have to say about this proposal, but the consequences of what that body decides in this matter are of major importance not only to US citizens, but to the world at large.

A decision too negative about the proposed project could seriously derail what may be one of the most culturally important developments in our intellectual history since they built the library in Alexandria.

On the other hand, a decision too subservient to the interests of Google and its partners could turn an invaluable cultural asset into a commodity offered up for sale at the whim price demanded by an uncontrolled monopoly.

What the Google Book Search project has developed so far is an impressive achievement; but if it is not properly controlled and moulded in the best interests of the public, it could turn into a tragically lost opportunity.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read