Thursday, May 3, 2007

Google Books -- Pros, Cons, and ?s

I continue to be amazed at the speed of the progress of both the Google Book Search and the Microsoft Live Book Search projects. Three years ago, who could have predicted it? Or, more precisely, with decades of predictions that some day someone was going to digitize the libraries of the world, who really expected it to happen this fast?

While neither Microsoft nor Google are disclosing their costs or total progress for their scanning projects, a March 11, 2007 article in the New York Times estimated that Google had already scanned over 1 million books at a cost of over $5 million. (History, Digitized (and Abridged), by Katie Hafner.)

Of course, just scanning a book does not guarantee that anyone will ever be able to read it online -- witness the recent posting on the American Historical Association's blog, Google Books: What's Not to Like? There are many errors resulting from the high speed with which the Google Book Search project is being done, errors that render the scanned books unreadable or unretrievable -- the written word reduced to mere digital static.

Nor do we yet have a pleasurable way to read an online book. Online books are great for keyword searching or reading brief excerpts, but, as been noted in many places, you can't take them into the bathtub with you yet. Companies like E Ink may be close to breaking that barrier. Take note, E Ink: We want our electronic paper to be capable of color and moving pictures, and we want it to be tubworthy. It is also possible that online books will leapfrog text altogether and become part of the audio-drenched universe accessible through our iPod earbuds -- Project Gutenberg is quickly building a large collection of freely accessible audio books. Again, there are no statistics available, but a quick check of their list of new audio books posted or updated in the past 24 hours reveals 18 titles, not too shabby a rate, but still a slug's slow progress compared to Google's frenetic scanning.

A professor of mine from my library school days, Michael Koenig, has written about the three stage process of social transformation due to the introduction of a new technology. According to the theory, there is an initial stage of introduction of a new technology, a second stage of adoption where the technology begins to become broadly accessible, and then a final, third stage where the technology changes not only how we do things but transforms the very things we do. (See "Entering State III: The Convergence of the Stage Hypotheses," Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 43, no. 3, 1992.) For all the problems with the Google and Microsoft book scanning projects, my sense is that we are being chivvied into a state III transformation when it comes to online books. We're already cross-eyed from our efforts to track our online journals; what will happen to our library systems when our books are online, too? On the strength of JSTOR, many schools have already discarded back runs of their serials. On the strength of Google, will we discard our old books, too?

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