“The Grateful Dead Approach to Intellectual Property”


That quote came from Moira Smith, the librarian for folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University. I interviewed Moira for my NUVO cover story on Google Books’ basically unnoticed foray into Indiana, and one question I asked was whether she worried that, by digitizing her books, she would undercut one of her university’s great strengths. IU’s Folklore Collection, you see, has historically attracted NEH grants, prestigious visiting scholars, and all kinds of summer programs. “We think it’s going to have the reverse effect,” Moira continued. “It’s going to be fully searchable, and, from a librarian’s point of view, that’s the best research tool you can have.”

That’s the kind of selfless, access-driven talk the Google Books debate could use more of. As I write at the end of the story:

By digitizing information, Google hopes to democratize it. In this future, it wouldn’t matter if you live in New York or Bloomington, Indianapolis or Elkhart. You could access any book—even, or especially, the one you didn’t know existed.

Anyway, if you’re interested in Google Books or the Indiana arts scene, read the whole thing. Here are a few things that didn’t make the cut:

  • First, three tech tangents I couldn’t fit in: Google Books doesn’t necessarily mean the death of print. The Espresso Book Machine, which is showing up at more and more bookstores, lets you you order any public domain title from Google Books; four minutes and eight bucks later, you’re holding a 300-page book. Another interesting aspect is “character recognition.” Even the best computer programs can’t translate images of text into text as accurately as humans, so Google and its competitors farm this out—each time you complete one of those annoying antispam tests (say typing out the distorted letters at Ticketmaster), you’re actually helping scan books. Finally, just a fact I liked: when Stanford University, in the late 1990s, digitized its card catalog, the number of books checked out increased by fifty percent.
  • If you want more intellectual background on the Google Books settlement, start with Robert Darnton’s great essay in the New York Review of Books. Darnton’s actually pretty anti-Google—under his aegis, Harvard pulled out of the scanning program—so you’ll want to balance him with some Google apologists. I reccomend these essays from The Big Money’s Mark Gimein.
  • “That some kind of systematic indexing of this vast accumulation should be undertaken has been long realized. Though several beginnings of such a work have been made during the past century, no plan has been completed with sufficient thoroughness to warrant general acceptance.” That’s Stith Thompson in the preface to his 1957 revision of his Motif-Index, but the same thing could be said today, of Google’s mission. Many of the academics who criticize Google Books seem to push past this big picture in order to wallow in smaller issues—Geoffrey Nunberg’s essay is a good example of this. In that NYRB essay, Darnton worries about Google Books price-gouging university libraries in the same way that scientific journals have inflated their subscription fees. This makes more sense than most Google Books criticisms, but, as IU’s librarians like to point out, Darnton omits the fact that many of these journals are now struggling with a nasty backlash.
  • Finally, there’s this incredible interview with Michael Hart, the affable, offbeat guy who founded Project Gutenberg in 1971, when they had to type books by hand. (Scanning didn’t start until the late 1980s.)

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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