Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Google Book Search

From Google’s overview of its Book Search:

“We believe a tool that can open up the millions of pages in the world's books can help remove the barriers between people and information and benefit the publishing community at the same time.”

Critics see this mission statement as a fancily worded admission that Google hopes to take over the world. Supporters applaud the aim to grant users universal access beyond their most farflung imaginings.

Until recent, pre-eReader years, books had been a safe haven in which modern readers could rest assured technology would not come knocking. Magazine and newspaper articles could be easily transferred from the printed page to the computer screen; scholarly research could be made searchable and archivable on an Internet database; the blogosphere shattered the traditional forum for commentary and reader-publisher engagement. But books have always existed as wholes- even those written in installments like the works of Dickens and his confederates were intended to be read in entirety, each release the equivalent of a chapter. (In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily speaks to her governess Miss Prism of the three-volume novels sent to her by Mudie, the London circulating library.) The idea that the entire text of a book, let alone all the books of the world, could be Internet-implanted was a game-changer.

I sympathize with those wary of such a tool’s potential violation of authors' and publishers' rights, and potential signalling of Doomsday for the printed word. But, at the same time, as a reader with an insatiable literary appetite, the prospect of being able to tap into such bottomless annals is invigorating. The great bookshops of yore seem quaint in contrast. And there's more: enhanced opportunities for print-disabled readers, security of texts for the future (like backing up our files to a hard drive rather than relying on a hanging file desk drawer), newfound exposure to backlist books, and automatic refurbishment of libraries' and schools' holdings.

How does Google have access to these reams of material? Artfully, as ever, the brains behind Google Book Search have navigated their way through the brambles of legal mire by displaying only excerpts and bibliographic information from copyrighted text. Only books out of copyright are offered in full. In-print books' display is contingent on authors' and publishers' direction.

So the goal, in short, is to assist authors and publishers in circulating their products, and extend said products on (sterling) silver platters to readers. Like I said, my perspective as an avid reader and a Generation Y'er who has grown up accustomed to the inclusion of technology in everyday life makes me biased toward the existence of Google Book Search. But my equally avid love of the physical volume- my bookshelves literally sag with weight- and my entry into the publishing industry workplace make me wary of the involvement of the Internet in book-browsing (note: eBooks and their marketplace are an entirely different topic- here I'm limiting my discussion to Google Book Search). Arguments in the Book Search's favor abound. I'm just worried that it's impossible to reconcile one route with the other, that letting technology in("dealing with the devil", in the words of Ursula K. LeGuin, who resigned from the Authors Guild over its support of the Google Books settlement) will lead to an eventual shut-out of print. This fracture is the dilemma facing my generation. We're caught uniquely on the brink of a new world, not quite uprooted nor yet taken new root.

From Robert E. Blackwell's "Fork in the Road":

As I start my new walk,
I think maybe, if I’m lucky,
The roads will rejoin
Once I pick up all the pieces
And fit them together
Into something whole,
But if not,
My healing heart and I
Will walk toward
The next sunrise
While wishing your road
Never loses the sun again.

You can purchase Blackwell's work on his website, read his poems on AuthorsDen, and clip them for future referral with a simple copy-and-paste. Or you can hand your bookstore cashier cash, or your librarian your membership card. Either way, we'll all walk on, brightened, just hoping our avoidance of the shadows doesn't leave them blackening another pathway.

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