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.