Google Books and Ebrary

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.

Tony Doyle

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Posted in Library Acquisitions, Library Collections, Library Resources, News

4 Responses to “Google Books and Ebrary”

  1. Jean-Jacques Strayer Says:

    Many thanks, Tony, for this timely blob. I’d like to add that the TLS reviewer also addresses another of Robert Darnton’s concerns about this digitizing project, i.e., Google’s “opaque algorithms” can act in such a way to “determine what books and copies [and editions] come first to our attention.” This, of course, might set limits to our scholarship. So, let’s continue to have knowledgeable librarians/bibliographers/educators in our academic libraries as well as “books” — whatever form they may take!

  2. Christa Acampora Says:

    Yes, indeed!

  3. Jean-Jacques Strayer Says:

    I saw a C-span book talk given by Darnton at the Harvard book store last Sunday night. It’s interesting that in response to a concern expressed about the integrity of texts and editions, Darnton mentioned the need for bibliographers and later discussed how much could be learned from librarians (at least at Harvard). They’re spending a lot at their libraries to address these digital preservation and scholarship and access issues. As we plan for a new library and recruit for a new chief librarian here at Hunter, I hope we will emphasize the need for “academic librarians of the 21st century” every time we discuss the “academic library of the 21st century.”

  4. Mist yolga Says:

    Interesting Post!I saw a book talk given by C-SPAN Darnton in the library of Harvard Sunday night. Interestingly, in response to a concern expressed by the integrity of the texts and editions, Darnton mentioned the need for bibliographers and then discussed how they could learn much from the librarians (at least at the University of Harvard). Spend a lot on their libraries to meet these digital preservation and scholarships and access problems. As the plan for a new library and hire a new head librarian here at Hunter, I hope you will emphasize the need to “university libraries in the 21st century” every time we speak of “academic library of the 21st century.”
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