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?

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