Posted on

The quality of Google Books

One of the great things about organizing a conference panel is the remarkable people you have a chance to meet virtually, and sometimes even meet in person. I’ll be writing in days to come about “my” panelists for the Global Information Industry Summit (I’m organizing two sessions: the opening panel on China, the other on community), but today I want to say a few things about an old friend, and a Berkshire adviser, whom I took this opportunity to invite to speak at the Networking and Community panel (details here; as you’ll see Marc Smith from Microsoft Research will be participating).

Paul can’t make it to Berlin, but was kind enough to send me his latest article, soon to be published at First Monday. (Actually, when he sent it, in reply to my GIIS invitation, he said that this would prove that no good deed goes unpunished.) I hope readers here already know Paul’s book The Social Life of Information (if not, order a copy now—it’s essential reading for anyone in scholarly publishing). He’s one of the few people I know able to appreciate technology but also to see it in broad cultural and historic context. Most of us either accept it uncritically or react defensively to challenges to things we love—like books, and making money even though we are publishers.

The article he sent is called “Inheritance or Loss? A brief survey of Google Books.” It’s a wonderful analysis, with illustrations, showing just what happened with a single novel scanned into the Google Books Library Project, which, by the way, “is not only vast, it is also mysteriously shrouded. Unlike the conventional library, Google’s provides no catalog and does not even reveal how many books it contains.”

I won’t give away what Paul discovered in his exploration, but will post the link when the article is published. As a preview, he’s given me permission to quote whatever I like, and I thought this bit from the end is worth sharing because he raises a point that we publishers should be much more attuned to. The fact that new media might destroy things people value is something my tech-world friends don’t want to think about. But there are economic interrelationships that really do need to be thought through, and discussed and publicized, before the damage is done. (My pet peeve is people who say that all publishing will soon be advertisement supported. I ask them whether there isn’t some limit to advertising—whether at some point there isn’t going to be too much advertising, or more advertising than anything else? I don’t know the answer, but surely there’s an economic issue here worth considering.)

Here’s what Paul points out:

Finally, with regard to inheritance as a strategy for quality assurance, the question of quality in Google Book’s Library Project reminds us that the newer form is always in danger of a kind of patricide, destroying in the process the resources it hope to inherit. This remains a puzzle, for example, for Google News. In its free provision of news, it risks undermining the income stream that allows the sources on which Google News relies for quality to survive. It may even be true, in a lesser way, for Google Books. Google relies here for quality assurance on the reputation of the grand libraries it has corralled for its project. Harvard and Stanford libraries certainly do not have their reputations enhanced by the dubious quality of Tristram Shandy, labeled with their name in the Google database. And Tristram Shandy is not alone. With each badly scanned page or badly catalogued book, Google threatens not only its own reputation for quality and technological sophistication, but also those of the institutions that have allied themselves to the project. The Google Book Project’s Tristram Shandy may be, as Sterne said ruefully about his marbled page, the “motley emblem” of its work.

And do take a look at “The Social Life of Documents” by JOHN SEELY BROWN and PAUL DUGUID with an introduction by ESTHER DYSON. And here’s Paul’s fascinating article about projects like Wikipedia, “Limits of self–organization: Peer production and ‘laws of quality.’”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *