Google Books and the librarian backlash


Roughly a decade ago, Google hatched an audacious plan: The company would scan the world’s books and make them searchable. For our most recent ebook, The Battle for the Books: Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library, GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts tells the story of Google Books through the eyes of the authors, librarians, lawyers and Google staff who were involved.

In this excerpt, Roberts illustrates how, by early 2009, five years after the project launched, concerns about the legality and ethics of the project grew louder – and far more public. An early partner, Harvard University’s library began to turn against the project not long after the search giant reached a settlement agreement with authors and publishers. The leading anti-Google Books voice at Harvard was librarian Robert Darnton, and his criticisms reverberated throughout the librarian community.

By early 2009, influential figures in the academic and literary world had begun to digest the implications of the proposed Google Books settlement, and they were worried. The settlement raised questions about Google’s motives, and it also set off a number of emotional trip wires about knowledge in the digital age. Who will be the gatekeepers of our books — libraries or companies? Who will determine the literary canons of the future — people or computers?

The first to toss these questions like a glove at Google’s feet was Harvard librarian Robert Darnton. In February 2009, Darnton published a broadside in the New York Review of Books that many credit for rousing opponents to sandbag the initial settlement. Adorned with references to Voltaire and the Founding Fathers, the article was foremost a cri de coeur for the relevance of librarians: “The library remains at the heart of things, but it pumps nutrition throughout the university and often to the farthest reaches of cyberspace.”

The white-haired, well-dressed patrician fanned the flames of anxiety he had touched off with his article by giving a series of alarming talks from New England to New York. His tour to warn his compatriots about Google included a stop at Columbia University. Before a full auditorium, he offered an eloquent but withering critique of the search company’s cataloging efforts. The company could scan, but it could not sort, he sniffed. Darnton told the audience that Google had filed Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass under gardening (although those involved in the scanning claim this couldn’t have happened). The implication was clear. This was no Library of Alexandria that Google was creating, but rather an outlet store where all the books were dumped on the floor.

As for the Googlers themselves, Darnton was polite yet contemptuous: “They’re very nice people. They’re all under 30 years and they don’t sit in chairs; they sit on round balls.” The tweedy New York audience could not fail to hear the dog whistle Darnton was blowing. Its silent message: These are not our sorts of people. In a very polite email message, Darnton in 2009 declined my request for an interview, explaining that there was little he could add to what he had stated in his New York Review of Books article.

Darnton’s Harvard colleagues echoed his concerns about Big Google. These included Lessig, who had been an early champion of Google’s scanning efforts while at Stanford. In an essay in The New Republic, Lessig compared Google Books to a tiger kitten that would grow more dangerous with age. The grown tiger might be a corporation let off the “do no evil” leash and turned loose to maximize profit from monopoly control of the world’s books.

This opposition to Google by the Harvard community, Google’s erstwhile partner, also reflected something of a personal grudge. H.L. suggested that Google was an ungracious opportunist. “We at Harvard thought we owned the file, while they at Google thought they owned the file,” said the librarian. “These were books that were our books that we had invested in at great expense for 200 or 300 years. This is where things got very tense.”

Buy The Battle for the Books: Inside Google’s Gambit to Create the World’s Biggest Library on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes.


S. Eric Rhoads

I wish academic journals, who lock publicly funded research behind subscription fees offered only to select outlets, faced a fraction of the scrutiny Google is receiving for their Books project.

Cyrus Moore

I agree with Theresa Geary. I too am an author and to me Google is simply using loopholes in the law to unethically acquire copyright and divert money that should be going to authors into their own coffers. If there are any of you out there who think Google is on the side of consumers, consider this. If authors are not paid properly for their work, how many great literary works are likely to be written in the future?

Rolf Pielemeier

I cannot claim to have read every word among the comments but I think the key point from a Librarians point of view is not the copyright issue. Please note the meaning of “They do not SORT” refers to defining the value of sources. Invisible to most consumers Schools and Librarys (and for some issues Churches) have through out time, and for better or worse defined what is truth. In case you missed it that authority is being replaced by your social graph which may include high school friends who’s POV has not changed much since graduation. There are still ways to “sort” for yourself but the burden is on you. If you do not recognize your role the democratization of truth you will surely live the consequences.


We think sharing knowledge to all people is a great tool for sustainable education!

Stijn Tebbes
Founder Blabook
Let’ s talk about Books!


Reblogged this on NikiVallwaysMyway and commented:
lol, gotta love google this morning! first in the stream, their investment in wind farming. now, this reminder of the book thing. i don’t know, i just some how see a lot of papers floating in the air being blown around until they all land somewhere in some new reality on


There’s an error in the book. Marissa Myers was not larry summers Chief of staff. You are thinking of Sheryl Sandberg.

Jeff John Roberts

Ed, thank you for calling attention to this. You are right — the book should have read Sheryl Sandberg, not Marissa Myers. This was simply a mental lapse on my part where I write the name of one ex-Googler when I meant the other. Unfortunately, the error was not caught until after the book was published.

Bob of Minneapolis

Is this one more case of denying the inevitable?

It seems as though everything is being converted to digital form and for good reasonOnce information is in digital form, the power of computers can be utilized to search and analyze its contents.

Surely there are books out there that are below an authors usual standards. We might discover that some rather important books were ghost written. This is particularly an issue for manuscripts “discovered” well after the death of the supposed author.

It seems to me that the security problems involved here haven’t really been addressed by some topnotch software people. Perhaps they are solvable.

I am concerned that the reactions so far seem to be based upon emotions, not reason.


this is a great article which unfortunately falls 2 days after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, co founder of Reddit and 26 ear old Edmond J.Safra Center for Ethics fellow at Harvard University. As Aaron was under a 11 count federal indictment by the Massachusetts Department of Justice and schedule to go to trial in April 2013, he was found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment Friday. The federal indictment was issued because he went onto the MIT campus and allegedly hacked into MIT JSTOR archive of research journals and downloaded them to his own computer which he then later made available on the internet for all the world to see…for free. MIT was furious then the Mass DOJ stepped in and started threatening Aaron with 50 years and $4 million in fines. We are all still trying to figure out who exactly was the victim in the crime? As most folks cant understand why a 50 year sentence was being recommended for a crime with no victims?

And now I see your article about Google Books or should we call it “Google Scans” because that is really all they are are scans. If a corporation such as Google controls the literature of the world I certainly do not think we would be better off for it.

It is evident there is some sort of empathy gene missing in the gene pool of mega corporations when it comes to turning all the worlds objects, books, paintings drawings into 1’s and zeros.

Nothing can replace a beautiful book, which does not require a battery or the excavation of raw earth materials and never becomes obsolete. Like paintings and drawings created by hand a beautiful book is a treasure. No library can be wiped out in a power surge .

paul martin

“No library can be wiped out in a power surge” er where is Alexandria, Wilford, Old Aberdeen High Street, Linksfield to name a few. Libraries are perceived as luxuries by the powers that be.


I dont agree”Libraries are perceived as luxuries by the powers that be”. Alexandria’s library destruction was Julius Caesar’s fault when he accidentally set fire to it. Those were military actions which resulted in the destruction of those libraries. Libraries which have perished due to acts of war are not the fault of writers, book makers, publishers or the library archival system. Even Google Books/Scans will be subject to those attacks at some point. However If libraries are luxuries then so are museums and any other form of history preservation.

Have you ever been to La Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze? or La Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome? These are two of the largest and most important libraries in Europe, I love them both and if you ever have a chance to get away from all of the electronic devices and the computer display to spend some time inside those libraries, do so! you will never regret it! If you love literature, if you love books or if you have read enough books you would understand that a library is a treasure not a luxury. Libraries are national treasures and should be revered as such, and we, the citizens of each country along with the librarians are the custodians, without them we have no history. there is no electronic device that may scan a book and capture the essence of type written text on paper, it is a personal physical experience . electronic libraries should never replace a brick mortar library.

The privatization of digital libraries by major corporations , some what like Google Books/Scans essentially is a form of hoarding texts for profit…it will never work, it is not a solution just as buying a Nook for $199. in order to read electronic books, which is a luxury for the affluent.

There is a wonderful documentary made by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz called “Wasteland” about a Brazilian landfill and the workers who pick through the garbage for recycling materials in the trash to earn a living. People now throw away books in order to buy digital books, its insane and almost obscene to do when an innocuous book can merely be passed along to another individual who yearns to read . Watch the documentary it puts all of this into perspective.

There will always be a generation gap and perhaps accusing those at Google that “everyone who works there is under 30 years of age and sits on rubber balls and they throw books on the floor into a pile” might be rather insulting to someone who has spent a life time in book conservation to see those wonderful books being treated so disrespectfully. It made me laugh to read it but I agree with him more than I do with you! There is hope in that it also made me realize eventually folks working at Google will grow older and start to have back, knee and hip problems and the rubber balls will be replaced with ergonomic chairs and there will be old farts still digitizing books in some way at GoogleBook/Scans/Master of the Universe of all archival materials corporation. In the end we all end up to be crumpled up old geezers throwing down on the young upstarts. You too will have your chance to ridicule the ideals of youth, everything comes full circle.

James Whitefish

This was presented like it a current issue but the event referred to happened in 2009, and is a thinly veiled advert for a book. Disappointing, a bad reflection on GigaOm and this tactic is certainly not an enticement for me to buy the book when it comes out! Big waste of my time…

Nicole Solis

Hi, James. Thanks for your thoughts. I respectfully disagree. The second sentences of both the summary and the post clearly state that this is an excerpt from our recent ebook. We added a reminder at the end of the post, too. Also, we intentionally used the cover of the book as the art, both on our home page and on the post page. We want to be clear in how we label these posts, so we included those four (five, if you count both places the image appears) signals. Sorry you missed them.

Theresa Geary

The problem is that Google violated every copyright law on the books, essentially stealing copyrighted material. Their excuse was a “fair use” doctrine because they claimed to be interested in sharing intellectual material with the whole world, especialy the academic world.

The biggest problem is that they fully intended on selling subscriptions to libraries and making huge $ profits, cutting off millions of royalties to authors and essentially becoming a monopoly on all the written and published words because they stole it (digitized it) fair and square.

As an author of 3 books that I invested approximately 10 years in the making, I find the “controversy” appalling. It was a giant case of theft, which is not a terribly confusing concept.


I completely agreed with Nicole Solis and THeresa Geary on this one. These are just brinksmanship tactics and used all the time in the corporate game of who blinks first. What should actually happen is to have the digital library as another form of archiving, especially since we have no known proof is exactly how long a digital library will remain intact. Until we have had a digital library in existence at least 100 hundred years , we will never know if it actually serves its purpose.

Google Scans/ Books has some pretty big balls to play that kind of game or they are completely ignorant to believe they have the wiggle room to is protected by “fair use” doctrine…c’mon! that is completely challengeable and a big fruit bearing argument for any plaintiff in a civil action and may be punishable as theft in a criminal action.

I just prefer to go to the library, talk to the librarian who happened to major in library science, check out a book, read the book that does not require batteries and that does not emit EMF-electro magnetic fields. much simpler and cheaper.

Stephen Simpson

Other than the legitimate complaint that Google refuses to sort anything (Outlook’s trump card over Gmail!), what EXACTLY is the problem here? I’ve read several articles over the years about this supposed “controversy”, and I have yet to see anything that actually explains what these guys are complaining about. LOL, am I supposed to buy some guy’s book to find out?


Agree with the above comment. This felt rather abrupt to read, both the beginning and the end. I understand that this is an excerpt, but when publishing an excerpt on a site like Gigaom, it would have been good to have some kind of a logical wrapper around it at the beginning and at the end which summarized the points the excerpt is supposed to be making / supporting.

Nicole Solis

Overall, there were some thorny issues around the legality of digitizing the world’s books, as we mention in the introduction. To create a digital library, Google had to scan in and digitize the text of each book (or get the text some other way). For non-public domain books, most judges would consider this is a flagrant violation of copyright law.

Another issue is that many agree that a widely accessible repository of the world’s knowledge would be a good thing, but putting it on the Internet, searchable by anyone, threatens the role of librarians, who consider themselves not only the gatekeepers to knowledge, as mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt, but also guides. This brought on a bit of an existential crisis for some librarians: What would their role be in a world where all information is available to anyone? And who would protect the integrity of the body of knowledge if “Leaves of Grass” could (allegedly) get filed under gardening?

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