The G-word


In case I need to spell it out, today’s topic is Google. Not satisfied with being only a noun (in the proper sense), it has been verbed in much of the global Internet consciousness. According to one source, “googling” accounts for 2/3rds of all U.S. Internet queries. The remaining 30-ish percent is a tug-of-war predominantly between Microsoft and Yahoo, with Ask and AOL in the low-single digits.

In the age of information, this places Google into a unique role of deciding how to match your standard end user with the information she or he seeks, something traditionally performed by research librarians. It does so with a measure of austerity, for its algorithms are above question (and certainly, its popularity speaks for itself). For the most part, librarians have seemed to embrace this particular change, adding Google to their reference repertoires.

But should librarians be concerned?

It’s not just reference over which Google’s shadow looms. Earlier this week, the (in)famous Google Books case was thrown out of a U.S. district court. The judge ruled that the benefit to the public outweighed any of the rights of the authors whose books were scanned and added to the massive digital library that Google has been creating. For many libraries, this is a good thing: free access to information that would otherwise be virtually impossible to acquire otherwise. Except, not all of it is free. In a settlement brokered back in 2007, Google now possesses “various legal rights to scan, index, display and sell all books in print online.” Not to mention the concerns of privacy, for which Google may not always maintain the highest integrity.

Speaking of integrity, Google has made a decision to censor some (admittedly illegal and obscene) results. Once again, most librarians would and will applaud such gestures, even if in opposition to a strict stance against censorship. Google has opposed censorship in the past, but from a librarian’s perspective, Google is a corporation, and like any corporation, strongly motivated by profit. If there were profit in it, it could be argued that Google might lean further in an orthogonal direction from the ethics of librarians and free speech.

Another recent addition to the roster of Google services is Google Helpouts, a way to request expert information directly from an expert. Google acts here as a marketplace, connecting experts with the Internet at large, and allowing those experts to set the price of their knowledge (provided through live online videoconferencing or pre-recorded sessions). Many sessions are free, so that’s a nice feature, but libraries are already doing the same thing (such as the Human Library or Check Out an Expert)! Google simply has the resources to globalize the idea and, of course, make a profit.

Connected Classrooms lets users go on virtual field trips through the Google Hangouts videoconferencing service. Connecting with organizations like NASA, the American Museum of Natural History and National Geographic, they’re providing an experience of bringing the world to the classroom or the library. For libraries with videoconferencing capabilities, this sort of thing is already happening, but it seems like Google is yet again one step ahead.

I spoke earlier of the potential concerns that librarians might have over Google and its ever-expanding influence. Obviously, this is not meant in the sense of Google as the Vishnu of libraries. There are concerns that Google’s interests do not match those of libraries or librarians, of course. As the winds of profit change course, what does it mean to us for a corporation like Google to be so firmly in control of the flow of information? By subscribing to Google’s services, do we make ourselves willing inmates to a Panoptic prison? Can we, as librarians and citizens, steal the fire and not be burned?

The many futures of e-reading

Future arrows

Back in August, I blogged a bit about the current state of e-books, especially with regard to libraries. However, the future of the e-book is diversifying, and several companies have begun testing new ways of marketing e-books. Some of these methods are intended for direct marketing to consumers rather than through libraries, meaning that libraries will be seeing even greater competition for providing e-books to patrons:

First, let’s look at Oyster, a company whose service has been termed “the Netflix for books.” Their idea is to court publishers into offering as many titles as possible, and sell that access as a monthly subscription to their customers, anyone using Apple mobile devices. Oyster offers access to e-books from its library on an unlimited basis, and has some large publishers backing them: Houghton Mifflin, HarperCollins, and SmashWords (a large self-publishing company). They have also tied in readers advisory functionality, social media and privacy settings.

Following in their footsteps is Scribd, with a similar unlimited-use service with a monthly subscription. Claiming to be the largest global digital library, their service is slightly less expensive than Oyster, and shares a focus on mobile users (though they also have an Android app, which Oyster currently lacks). Scribd claims also to offer supplemental information to its readers: “Scribd’s extensive collection of user generated content also offers subscribers additional reading options that enhance and add a social element to the books they’re reading or have read. For example, after reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, readers can access papers analyzing the different characters in the book, a doctorate paper on tenement houses in Brooklyn, and even a study guide for the book.”

A third subscription option is eReatah, though they do not employ the unlimited use option. Instead, users pay monthly for a certain number of tokens (between two and four), and reading a book costs one token. However, with eReatah, you are permitted to keep the content you have purchased, even should you cancel your subscription. They are also using a powerful algorithm used by Netflix for making recommendations based on previous purchases, making it easier to find new authors or titles that readers might not otherwise have encountered.

For people who are interested in deals on e-books, there’s also services like BookBub, which notify you when an e-book has been steeply discounted (or offered for free) by many of the major vendors. Rather than spend the time perusing the online marketplaces, these services do the work for consumers.

More and more, vendors of library services are shifting toward a pay-per-use model, such as Freading and the Gale Virtual Reference Library. This model seems to be very attractive for libraries that have the resources to support the reading habits of their communities, but retain some of the issues of other models, such as the lack of ownership of titles. However, the cost per use is considerably less than the cost of a single copy of the material, so it can be seen as “micro-licensing” of a sort.

Finally, publishers often find themselves choosing platforms of preference, such as Overdrive3M Cloud Library or Axis 360. We’re pretty familiar with this model, though it seems like the one that makes no one perfectly happy (except the owners of the platforms themselves). They will remain around until a critical mass of e-reading consumers have sided with a different method.

Which future do you think is most likely?