On “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” by James Somers

On “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” by James Somers

In this article for The Atlantic, James Somers explores why the original dream behind Google Books — and perhaps even behind Google itself, Somers suggests — has been quashed. Somers traces the trajectory of Google Books, from the centuries-long pipe dream of creating the world’s largest library in “one place” to its current manifestation: alive, but with utopic vision unrealized. Somers provides a compelling account of the class action lawsuit between Google and a coalition of authors and publishers, as well as the agreement these opposing parties worked to develop that would allow Google to continue digitizing books as long as there is a profit scheme where a percentage of books purchased from the platform go to copyright holders. He gives equal weight to the many perspectives involved, and summarizes the outcome succinctly — disapproval from the Department of Justice and an eventual “cease and desist” from the presiding judge, despite the fact that Google won its fair use case in regards to previously digitized books and came to an amenable agreement with the authors and publishers.

So what happened? As Somers writes, there were many oppositional forces at play in this particular lawsuit. He isolates, however, the role of academics and librarians in the eventual moratorium on the digitize-everything objective of Google Books. Somers suggests that it was the pushback from this corner that influenced the Department of Justice most strongly. Maybe so (academics still have that kind of power?? Wow! Guys we can do anything!), but Somers’s disregard for the reason why university members pushed back is a little worrisome. Somers suggests this was shortsighted and counterintuitive; why would academics and librarians not want universal access to the knowledge that is found in printed books? He correctly cites the number one fear as stemming from the current subscription crisis in academia, and librarians’ cynicism when it comes to handing over intellectual property to corporate publishers for free, and then paying wildly inappropriate amounts of money to access it again. But Somers still infers that this is a lesser evil than allowing the books to sit locked up on Google servers, where “the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up” (n.p.).

The angle that Somers fails to explore is perhaps a solution to the quandary: a non-commercial, open online library (see Digital Public Library of America, or the Internet Archive’s Open Library). It’s not that academics and librarians don’t want to share knowledge; it’s that they don’t want to hand over intellectual property that they will go broke over having to access again in the future. Nowhere does Somers suggest that the profit-centric agreement between Google and the authors and publishers is not the only option for universal access to knowledge resources. Especially in the case of out-of-print books, which Somers agrees are commercial deadweight (that is, non-profitable), it stands to reason that Google could continue its mass digitization under the agreement that the material will never be sold; that it will truly be an open, global library — because you don’t pay for your library card, nor do you buy or even rent the books that you take out of the library. But where’s the fun (read: money) in that?

Work cited

Somers, James. 2017. “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria.” The Atlantic, 20 April 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/the-tragedy-of-google-books/523320/

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