the tower of google

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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.

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