February 18th, 2010 by Tony Doyle
Google Books and Ebrary
The January 29 issue of The Times Literary Supplement features a review by H.J. Jackson of Robert Danton’s The Case for Books. One chapter in Darnton’s book deals with Google’s pioneering project to digitize some 15 million books. Jackson, echoing Darnton, endorses the spirit of the project but warns of potential risks. He begins with the familiar point that that scanning is far from error free. He adds the further oft-mentioned observations that electronic files are “subject to decay” and that they tend to be shunted aside by new formats. Also, Google ultimately decides what goes on the list, leaving open the possibility of censorship. Finally, although for the time being Google is offering out of copyright books for free and without ads, Jackson plausibly worries if this practice will continue.
This brings me to Ebrary. As readers of this blog know, Hunter has recently acquired 45,000 digital books from Ebrary. That’s a boon, right? Probably: other things being equal it’s better to have a digital copy of a text than not. But there could be hidden costs in the move towards ebooks. My main concern is that ever thrifty CUNY administrators will see the things as cost-cutters and thus as a way of phasing print books out of the budget. Second—and I’ll bet this has occurred to you as well—browsing electronically as against strolling through the stacks are different experiences. Each has advantages that the other lacks. Third, suppose that CUNY or Hunter can’t afford to renew its contract with Ebrary down the road. Are we out the books?
So two cheers to CUNY for this significant acquisition. I only hope that it’s not the beginning of the end for print books in our libraries.