Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Reading Room

Hooray! I may not be the only non-librarian in America interested in digital libraries after all!

(Anyone who reads this blog for "funny state-of-the-minute commentary" can just skip this entry. You have been warned in advance: this posting is just about digital libraries.)

Yesterday, Siva Vaidhyanathan of Sivacracy.net listed more reasons be skeptical about corporate outsourcing of digitization in "The Great Unanswered Questions: Can Google Do It Right?" In particular, he raised more critical red flags about the search algorithm in the current Google Book Search demo and the lack of public accountability in the procedures for metadata encoding. Indeed, it's hard to get straight answers from reading Google materials, but reviews in the venerable Search Engine Watch seem to indicate that Google might not even support library standards like Dublin Core or the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

As a rhetorician, I found the diction of Google's User Stories very strange, almost like heavily edited messages from the occupants of some authoritarian country or the members of some megalomaniacal cult. These cryptic yet canned testimonials earnestly emphasize either 1) how the typical Google Book Search user would be happily spending more money buying more books as a direct result of using this service or 2) how the user who wasn't a rapid-response book consumer would be mysteriously lacking in curiosity about the present, one narrowly interested in materials safely out of copyright and in the dusty territory of public domain, generally a harmless armchair historian/amateur genealogist.

Google's posting of these testimonials seems disingenuous, given how the digital generation wants online access to recent and complete files at minimal cost. It's like claiming that a visitor to Apple's iTunes would either merrily shell out $99 a song or would nostalgically content themselves with turn-of-the-last-century sheet music. Publishing such plainly unrealistic pap ignores the existence of conflicts between traditional cultures of knowledge and newer cultures of information that large-scale digitization efforts inevitably only exacerbate.

On a side note, earlier this week, I somehow found myself in an online verbal tussle with someone ironically named "Not Liz," in which my opponent couldn't seem to see the fundamental policy issues at stake or why temporary, band-aid solutions shouldn't be trumpeted as the culmination of a visionary or philanthropic mission.

Even while members of Congress begin to debate about whether or not "information is a human right" in other countries, the idea that information is a civil right that should be supported by publicly funded initiatives in this country still comes off as too radical an idea to be acknowledged.

Besides, on principle, academics need to challenge corporate sponsorship of information access at every turn. This isn't paranoia; it is practicality. This blog has talked about the hazards of public diplomacy, risk communication, and social marketing to the deliberative activities of the public sphere. Why is the digitizing of public archives using private encoding standards not similarly a matter of concern?

Or, to put it in baldly, once a corporate brand like Google dominates the market, what fraction of the public will bother with whatever librarians at individual universities create to supplement or complement it?

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