Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)

Google Books

I saw a rather good documentary, Google and the world brain on BBC4 the other night. If you didn’t catch it I can recommend it. It was intelligent,well made, and allowed the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions.

The subject matter was Google Books. Google seems to have surrounded this with layers of legalistic secrecy that are bound to incur suspicion even if this isn’t actually justified. Several of the talking heads mentioned that they’d been told to sign non-disclosure agreements and there was one scene where the librarian of a monastic library just stopped speaking in obvious confusion about what he could or couldn’t say.  This was exacerbated by Google US’s odd decision not to participate in the programme (and yet one of their Spanish staff did do so?)

Yet the logic of Google Books seems clear. As a librarian I’m all for free availability of information, and it seems obvious that a search engine provider would want to add ever more information to their database to improve the quality of the answer. I think it was the fact that the digitisation puts the scanned images into the control of one organisation that drew most suspicion. Can we trust one organisation to do this fairly? The jury is out on that one.

The other objections were equally predictable. The programme painted a perhaps unfair picture of the nationalistic objections from the former head of the Bibliotheque Nationale. However the objection which has done most to hinder the original aims of the Google Books project is copyright. Up until recently Google Books was scanning in-copyright books but said that this was legal because of the ‘fair use’ clause in copyright law.  Due to legal actions they’ve now stopped this and are scanning only books outside copyright (even though the laws which define what is and isn’t copyright aren’t exactly universal either!).

The programme touched on the murky world of copyright. Both sides of the argument were presented: that knowledge itself can’t be held to be private and so only the author’s arrangement of the words is copyright-able, versus the argument that if an author has spent a year or more of his/her time creating a book they deserve some kind of recognition and reward for this. Much can be said on this and opinions are very entrenched so I won’t say any more!

Another aspect of the programme which deserves further exploration is Google’s motives in developing Google Books. It is costing them millions of dollars. Improving the search engine is an obvious aim, but also mentioned was an aspiration towards Artificial Intelligence. There were several quotations from H.G. Wells musing on the World Brain. However the acquisition of knowledge is not the same thing as being able to use that knowledge logically, fairly and morally (just look at many of the occupants of the House of Commons for evidence of that!). If Google is working towards AI, then the ‘thinking brain’ must be another one of those Google side-projects, some of which blossom (like Android), and others which never go anywhere. Of course if they are working on AI they are not alone, as there are many projects of this nature around the world, some overt and sharing their results in the scientific principle, but doubtless others which are under the radar. But I suspect that Google’s slightly quirky approach to development might have led them further down the road than others which are less free to question doctrine. Google Search was a game-changer when it emerged, but an adaptable AI which could operate outside very closely defined parameters might well be a society-changer. ….

February 20, 2013 Posted by | General | | Leave a comment

Perceptions of Libraries

Just read an excellent post from Carl Grant of Ex Libris about OCLC’s ‘Perceptions of libraries 2010‘ report. Academic libraries need to change, and that change needs to come fast.  Although the report is based on US data and Carl’s view is from the Ex Libris perspective, this lesson applies as much in the UK as the US. He talks of a revolution not evolution being needed in libraries today. There is a growing disconnect between libraries and users, and librarians are failing to realise this.

So what should we be doing? This is less clear, as is inevitable, but he does say:

We must meet the end-user on their terms, delivering information to the interface of their choice, at the place, time and format of their choosing.

For me as a systems manager this means things like single search boxes covering all library resources, smartphone interfaces and external availability of data.

But we must also be recognised as delivering this information: too often users don’t realise that the library has made available the database from which they have just skimmed an article – the information is just ‘out there’ and the user found it via Google. Even worse, our funders don’t understand this. Hence there’s a difficult job there of both branding information and making it easy to find and use. It isn’t just a challenge for the systems managers but for the subject librarians (student and faculty facing) and the library managers (university management facing)  so demands fundamental change at all levels.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | Libraries | , , , , | Leave a comment

Google Scholar and metasearching

Interesting blog from Jonathan Rochkind this morning. Metalib currently has a target for including Google Scholar in metasearches, and as a popular resource I imagine most implementations use it. However some libraries have had problems with it, and when they pursued the problem with Google they found that Google doesn’t allow metasearching and so their controls were cutting off metasearch engines as suspected bots. Ex Libris has now put out an email to customers to make them aware of this, and so the target is now being de-activated. Presumably other metasearch suppliers will have to do the same.

Obviously Ex Libris have to take this course of action so we can’t criticise them, but it is sad that Google isn’t prepared to allow metasearching. Google Scholar has targeted education, but isn’t prepared to embrace the open-ness of the best educational resources.  I appreciate that Search is a competitive market and that metasearch is in a way a competitor, but where libraries are trying to make researchers lives simpler by cutting down the multiple resources they must consult, Google isn’t willing to help in this. Hopefully if enough people point this out they may reconsider their decision.

January 14, 2010 Posted by | Libraries | , | Leave a comment

Google find Roman villa in Mozambique?

Google quickly moved to dismiss the possibility that they’ve helped searchers to find Atlantis off the African Coast with their new ocean-bed mapping. They explained that some apparent gridlines on the maps were just an artifact of the scanning process. However I don’t think they quite meant the explanation to continue:

“It’s true that many amazing discoveries have been made in Google Earth including a pristine forest in Mozambique that is home to previously unknown species and the remains of an Ancient Roman villa,” a Google statement said. (from the BBC news website)

I quite like the idea of a Roman travelling to the south-east of Africa to build himself a villa in the middle of a pristine forest, hindered only by unknown species…..

February 21, 2009 Posted by | General | | 4 Comments