Librarians at the Gate

I’m feeling chilled, nauseaus, and faint.  No, I don’t think it’s the swine flu.

Rather, I just listened to a portion of yesterday’s Democracy Now! interview with Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, Google Faces Antitrust Investigation for Agreement to Digitize Millions of Books Online.

I’ve always thought that we librarians were the heroes.  We were the ones out there on the front lines safeguarding the public’s right to free access to information.  We were the ones gathering, microfilming, digitizing, cataloging and otherwise preserving papers, documents, and books and making them available online for present and future generations.

In this great crusade, librarians were among the first adopters of computer technologies.  We have since embraced every search tool, database delivery system, open standard, digitization scheme, and Internet widget to come our way.

But we’ve let our guard down.  In opening wide the gate and in embracing geeks bearing gifts, we’ve discovered an enemy.  Our greater surprise is finding that this enemy is ourselves.

We’ve been lulled by the siren song that benevolent, enlightened library technology corporations can do the job better, cheaper, and more efficiently than armies of local librarians could ever have dreamed of doing.   Overwhelming evidence has convinced us that monopoly giants can do it better.

As a result, the question, once unthinkable:

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the end of libraries as we know them?

Elicits a nightmarish possibility:

BREWSTER KAHLE: [Long pause]. Libraries as a physical place to go, I think will continue, but if this trend continues, if we let Google make a monopoly here, then we’ll lose what libraries are in terms of repositories of books, places that buy books, own them, be a guardian of them, will cease to exist. Libraries, going forward, may just be subscribers to a few monopoly corporations’ databases.

I wouldn’t have felt so alarmed listening to this had I not recently read Robert Darnton’s essay in The New York Review of BooksGoogle & the Future of Books“. Darnton, by the way, is the director of the Harvard University Library and was a trustee of the New York Public Library. Both institutions were among the first five enthusiastic contributors to the Google Book project when it began in 2004. They’re now having second thoughts.

This week has been unsettling all around. I’m still pondering OCLC’s announcement a few days ago of their cloud-based alternative to traditional library Integrated Library Systems and the merits of Tim Spaulding’s penetrating critiques in his LibraryThing blog.

I’ll let history can be the judge whether alarmists like Kahle, Darnton, and Spaulding are prescient or paranoid.

I need to get back to monitoring my swine flu “twittertape.”

Editorial by Ray Matthews
Government Information Coordinator
Utah State Library

– opinions expressed here are his own –

Published by

Ray Matthews

Government Documents and Digital Library Services Coordinator, Utah State Library