the tower of google

This weekend’s New York Times Week in Review had a nice little article in it about the pursuit of knowledge—from the librarians of Alexandra to the Library of Congress to the 128 million books, articles, photographs, recordings, and maps. Who says that there are no worthwhile government programs?

Not to be outdone, however, capitalism sees an opening. Google is providing the cash for a project librarians could only dream of—digitizing whole swaths of their collections. Google announced that they’ve reached agreements with the research libraries of Harvard, Stanford, Oxford (which is offering everything in its collection dated earlier than 1901), and our own New York Public Library (which is offering up the 400,000 items no longer under copyright laws). Hooray for speed, access, and the democracy of information! Anyone from near and far will be able to view anything they need. Does evil, however, lurk within this biblio-bonhomie?
Many have quipped that ‘a little information can be dangerous.’ As a teacher, I’m not particularly in favor of such elitism, but I’m also a little wary — after all, no search program can offer a ‘critical thinking‘ option. (We’ll table for a later date discussions over whether unfettered access can be a good thing.)

But, according to the executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, Duane Webster, there’s concern over other issues. As quoted in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the aptly named Mr. Webster said: “There is anxiety about whether the student researcher, scholar or citizen will be guided into the free public access rather than being lured into a purchasing relationship with the publisher.” Can we accept advertising in trade for access? Options are limited: The Library of Congress has been able to digitize only a sliver of their materials, thanks only to private contributions. I don’t love the thought of walking to the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room and watching a stream of ads before sitting down to a good book. Could you imagine billboards hanging in this space?

Regardless, the folks at Google have been working hard since going public on the NYSE (opening at $85 a share, Google stock is now at $186). ‘Gmail’ is, for now, an ‘invitation only’ email account that allows you to search your own messages based on the content as well as the sender (no one has invited me, by the way, so I guess I’ll have to wait until next year, when Google says they hope to open accounts to the public ). Google Scholar allows you to fact-check academic articles, and the new Google Suggest offers suggestions as you type in your search request based on the amount of hits they promise. Neato.

catchy names and bad drugs

I remember, only a few years ago, I would throw down a statistic to my 101 students that pharmaceutical companies would spend over $5,000 per year, per doctor on advertising. My father, a neonatologist, would always have a fistful of pens and pencils with wild names like Seladin. I would come to school with little notepads with funny names with lots of consonants. Sometimes, I would get to try a new medicine for my allergies.

But now those ad dollars go directly to you, the TV veiwer. With the cheery commercials for ‘Celebrex‘ and other feel-goodly named purple pills (dancing in fields, middle aged folk hugging and mugging for the camera, etc.), and their apparent stock exchange downfall, I’m thinking about the good old days when I didn’t know about the latest drugs, and trusted my doctor. The zeitgeist might be shifting a little (although, without a doubt, folks still come to the doctor hoping for a pill to cure whatever ails them). It’s a few months old, but there’s still a great piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker on drug spending.