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Will Google Books kill print and paper libraries? Long live the new text?

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The squat building that sits atop the hill that rises to the west from North Charles Street just before University Parkway holds its treasure underground. When you enter the Milton S. Eisenhower Library on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, you travel down to get to the stacks. Once there, the environment-conscious motion-controlled lights provide an unintentional metaphor. When you walk into the darkness between the more than 10-foot-tall Library of Congress-numbered bookshelves, your very presence illuminates the stacks. There, spine-out, cataloged, and stored in all its inefficient analog glory is that great instrument and growing anachronism of learning and wisdom: the paper-and-ink bound book.

America’s university research libraries, its public libraries, its bookstores, and its readers are in a period like no other in the history of reading. The digitization of the printed word, while gaining steam for more than a decade, has reached a critical mass, where difficult political decisions will determine what the future of reading may entail.

There’s no greater player in determining that future than the many-tentacled Google. Beginning in 2004, Google Books has digitized more than 15 million books from more than 35,000 publishers, more than 40 libraries, and more than 100 countries in more than 400 languages—laying the foundation for its professed desire to become the largest library the world has ever known. Building on this searchable Google Books behemoth, the company launched its Google e-bookstore in December, instantaneously becoming the largest retailer of books, broadly construed, in the world.

And while e-book selling is nothing new—Amazon and its Kindle, launched in 2007, now marshal more than 40 percent of the e-book market (even after the rollout of Apple’s iPad)—Google monetizes (the euphemism for getting paid in the digital realm) the downloadable, networked, cloud-inhabitant book in new and perverse ways. Most perversely, the research university libraries that signed on with Google to allow their holdings to be digitally scanned, free of charge, have been profoundly played by the corporate juggernaut. Those library holdings, the patrimony of taxpayers and tuition-paying students, are now repackaged and ready to be sold back to those very libraries.

This January at the second annual Digital Book World conference held in New York, Google representatives also gave an upbeat assessment of the less than two-month-old retail operation. Google Books product manager Abraham Murray told the conference that the free Google e-books app was installed more than a million times in the first few weeks. Google books were read on all kinds of devices, Murray said, from iPhones to tablets to Mac and PC screens.

The depth of that collection and the variety of devices on which its books can be read are the very things with which Google hopes to trump Amazon and conquer the e-book world. Yet Amazon’s desire is just as megalomaniacal as Google’s. Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Kindle content, told the Los Angeles Times in December, “Our vision is [to make] every book ever written, in any language, in print or out of print, all available within 60 seconds.”

At a price, of course, and to be read on a particular device.

The Amazon Kindle, with its MIT Media Lab-developed E Ink, provides the best nonbacklit and most thoughtfully designed digital reading experience. Yet the Kindle extracts more than payment for its content and provides a clear vision that digital book providers want more of it they can monetize. Amazon maintains detailed records of not only what users of its Kindle device are reading, but also the passages they’ve highlighted, the pages they’ve bookmarked, the amount of time they’ve spent on the device, and the notes readers scribble from the keyboard into the margins of the e-books they are reading. At the end of January, Amazon announced that e-books outsold both hardbacks and paperbacks from its site.

Indiana University professor Ted Striphas, author of 2009’s The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, wants to make sure we know what we are getting ourselves into. In his fall 2010 essay in Communication and Critical Cultural Studies, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read,” Striphas argues that the “Kindle personifies a challenge to a core set of liberal democratic principles.” We no longer read alone. The act of reading, that interior world of self and text bequeathed by Johannes Gutenberg that is synonymous with individual conscience and democratic subjectivity, is now compromised. Jeff Bezos is reading over your shoulder. Nefariously for Striphas, the “Kindle objectifies reading by transforming a process into a recordable, transmissible thing . . . There is a need for a new and fundamental right to read to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that [the Kindle] embodies . . . a right to read would compliment the existing right of free expression.”

Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Library, is also sounding an alarm. “By controlling access to information, [Google] has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself,” he writes in the Dec. 23 New York Review of Books. “What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers . . . provided for free.”

Feb. 18 marks the first anniversary of the first “fairness hearing” held in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan to examine the settlement agreement between Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers, which was meant to rein in some of the company’s ambitions. The agreement remains unapproved by the court and has been criticized by everyone from the U.S. Department of Justice to the governments of France and Germany to the American Society of Media Photographers and the National Writers Union. The convoluted agreement gives Google de facto monopoly control over whole categories of books—those out-of-print, but still under copyright, and those whose rights holders are disputed or unknown, for example. It also gives Google a license to use nearly every foreign book ever published. Critically, the settlement allows Google to control and grow the world’s largest library and bookstore, leaving readers and writers no real way to opt out.

Most damningly, the agreement allows Google to do what it has always wanted, which has nothing to do with books and readers. Nicholas Carr in The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google finds what lies beneath the corporate bibliomania: “We are not scanning all of those books to be read by people,” Carr reports a Google engineer telling technology historian George Dyson in 2005. “We are scanning them to be read by an [artificial intelligence engine].” The goal is control of information, searching, and, of course, revenue for shareholders that come with such control.

Darnton says the answer to the commercialization of access to knowledge is the creation of a National Digital Library, a Digital Public Library of America. “Google demonstrated,” he says, “the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at anytime. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?”

Yet America’s nominal public libraries struggle to remain relevant in this fast-changing digital book world. The big-box bookstores that killed off huge numbers of independent booksellers—places where the literate citizen found a home—are themselves facing a bankruptcy of both economic and cultural value and relevance.

Not far from the Eisenhower Library, just off Greenmount Avenue and Old York Road on Vineyard Lane, is another vision of our book future. Here in a squat, little warehouse are the mounds of abandoned and disowned books that make up The Book Thing of Baltimore Inc. Here the book-desirous are like the “garbage people” of Cairo’s Garbage City or the rag-pickers of India. Sifting, sorting, recycling, finding value and life in the cast-off and flotsam of others. Some will have access in the future to the Amazon/Google digital literacy complex. The rest of us will have to scratch out a different kind of reading life. ■

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