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  —Charles Darwin

essence of library

Wednesday, August 17th, 2005 8:33 pm

I like the flow of the google / library discussion: what’s the essence of library? and suspect I’ll be thinking about that one for a long time to come. (It sounds like a delightful perfume: a bit musty with an sweet undernote of decaying paper and an overnote of astringent preservative, maybe.)

Just picking out a few of the responses & adding a few more comments:

Michael Madison laid out a best-case defense for google based on google’s added-value of meta-information, and then termed the discussion: “is there an ‘essence’ of library?” And points out that we ought to focus “more what Google does than on what Google is“.

Siva Vaidhyanathan responded that Google doesn’t come close to the ‘essence of a library’.

This is the heart of the discussion that really intrigues me. Not because I truly am arguing that Google is a library, but because I suspect that the ways that information is being transmitted might start to render moot our current definitions of “library”. In my earlier post, I wasn’t really suggesting that Google take advantage of the warm feelings towards libraries; I doubt it would be a very helpful strategy, because most judges, like everyone else, would intuitively distinguish between the classical public library and Google. Rather, I was suggesting that library exceptionalism is only going to work so long as libraries are conceptually distinct.

Michael M then responded to Siva with some discussion of the essence of a library, ultimately concluding that we really have to talk about libraries in terms of information flows. And then he brings it back to Google:

Do we experience Google Print content as we experience other collections that we regard as libraries, or do we experience that content as we experience the Web — a functionally unlimited aggregation of data? Right now, the answer to that question has to rely on intuition and speculation. My money is on the second option, but in the end: who knows?

I’d like to suggest two basic functions for libraries: One is warehousing and archiving physical collections; serving effectively as a museum of information. The second function is providing information services. Storage, and access.

In the past and even today these two functions are, practically, inseparable. And each implicates a whole host of sub-functions many of which serve both masters — e.g., cataloging, which organizes the stored collections.

But these functions have been splitting and will continue to. Digitizing projects, like Google Print, will put the physical artifacts on the same plane with museum artifacts: nice if you’re a scholar and need the original, but for most people, the digitized content will suffice. [Google Print is not the only digitizing project, of course; there are plenty of others on smaller scales that have gotten less attention. I would be interested to get some examples of public-private partnerships because I suspect Google Print isn't the only one.]

As more of the information content becomes digital, the subfunctions used to service both the storage and access functions will shift. Two examples: cataloging and preservation. Electronic information needs much less in the way of cataloging; full-text searching obviates a lot of cataloging needs. (No, not all; I believe in subject headings and hierarchical thesauruses — although I’m not sure they’re ultimately scalable if we’re talking about organizing all information.) Digital media have their own preservation problems, fairly distinct from those relevant in most special collections. The central problem in preserving digital media collections is shifting formats; the central problem in preserving physical collections is preserving the original artifact.

So as these transitions within libraries move forward, the easy and obvious distinctions present today between libraries and Google Print will erode.

Now, Eric Goldman in a comment here said another of his maxims was never build a business on fair use. Google Print, of course, relies entirely on fair use (17 USC 107), so far as I can see. One way we might distinguish libraries at present is that most libraries, operating in the book-warehousing business today, rely not very much at all on fair use, and rather a lot on first sale (17 USC 109). Libraries vary with respect to the library exemptions in 108, which are used principally, so far as I know, to (a) establish reserves collections; and (b) make backups of software, videos, records, etc.

But the bedrock library provisions we rely on today, 108 and 109, won’t be enough for some collections that need to be built in the future. For instance, I don’t know what libraries are currently archiving popular digital ephemera (besides the Internet Archive). But just as libraries have begun to collect popular culture media in DVDs, CDs, comic books, and zines, so there will have to be archiving projects dedicated to archiving purely digital media, including digital media that are distributed for free via the web. I’m thinking of things like JibJab’s “This Land Is Our Land”, Mark Fiore’s shockwave commentaries, and similar such materials.

Let’s consider the Mark Fiore shockwave animated cartoons. [This is purely my example, because I love Mark Fiore; I have no idea if he has been approached by any libraries or what his response might have been.] The cartoons are distributed for free over the Internet; but they are not (so far as I know) licensed for free reproduction & distribution, and they author retains copyright. If a library wanted to begin collecting them, how would they analyze this collection & provision of access to it? 109 protects the rights of “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title … to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord”. But “computer programs” are exempted. Are shockwave files “computer programs”? Maybe we have to resort, at last, to fair use. Now what do American Geophysical Union, Kelly v. Arriba, MP3.com, et al, tell us? Michael Madison talked about it, but I think it was summed up by Eric Goldman: “Don’t build a business on fair use … multi-factor tests lead to complete unpredictability.”

This is obviously not a fullbore analysis of the relevant provisions as applied to publicly distributed shockwave files, but it does make my point: digital media and new ways of distributing content are already troubling the current copyright categories that are designed around brick-and-mortar libraries and physical artifacts.

And that’s just one example looking at only one aspect of the question of collecting & providing access to Mark Fiore shockwave animations. Consider the reams of problems that digital media pose in the realm of licensing, DRM, and DMCA-type technical protection measures, notwithstanding the protections allegedly offered by 109, 108, and the 1201(d). (Is there any point in even citing to 1201(c)? I feel it’s been effectively read out of the statute the same way, and perhaps for similar reasons, the 9th Amendment to the Constitution has been politely ignored.)

Libraries qua libraries — well, libraries qua public and academic libraries, anyway — will always have recourse to Congress, and I predict they will prove as popular there in the future as they have in the past: not popular enough to sway Congress from granting very broad rights to copyright holders that end up hurting libraries, but popular enough to get some limited library-specific protections.

But most librarians, myself included, want to preserve BOTH today’s model of the library: the brick-and-mortar warehouse-and-cataloger-of-physical-media (which I do think will always be around) — AND the idea of the library: the collector and provider of information. So the question is, how, or why, do we copyfighters / librarians / information activists / legal scholars distinguish Google Print in a way that doesn’t hurt Essence of Library down the line? And why, tactically, should we? Maybe, we should focus on building a more robust fair use, fixing 109 so it works with digital media, or even adding in more 108 exemptions. Or maybe on the DMCA Library of Congress anticircumvention comment rounds that are coming up again.

Further reading on this discussion at copy this blog and copy this blog again. copyfight is following the debate and a number of people are commenting: See google print is as google print does and google print library shoulda coulda woulda. More from “real librarians” and others responding on Siva’s blog: Eileen Snyder, 8/17; Siva responding to Michael Madison, and including comments from other folks too.

I’d like to link to some good discussions on 109 (I seem to recall Derek Slater recently talked about 109 and digital music files, for instance, but can’t find his post — is there a search function I’m missing? Derek?) but will need to do some more digging … later.


As I write I follow one of those social sciences rules about mobs or group discussions or something: I make myself more firm in my opinions the longer I write. This is why it would be much better if I had time to write a long post, then sit on it for a while — my tone could be measured & even the whole way through. But I was already delayed in responding, so wanted to get some thoughts out in a hurry.

update 8/18: a few last posts on this discussion: madisonian.net 8/17; siva 8/18 and siva again 8/18;

siva also posted about an aspect of this issue which i didn’t really touch at all in this discussion, which is the trustworthiness of private actors in general and google in particular. my interest was piqued by the essence-of-library question, but this was a significant thread in comments & subtexts in various discussions. See siva 8/17; copy this blog (previously cited) linked to a post & comment discussion of the google / library contract on the library law blog; and seth finkelstein wrote about what’s in it for google.

update 9/1: the best response to it all came from the onion: Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can’t Index …

The new project, dubbed Google Purge…. The company’s new directive may explain its recent acquisition of Celera Genomics, the company that mapped the human genome, and its buildup of a vast army of laser-equipped robots. ‘Google finally has what it needs to catalog the DNA of every organism on Earth,’ said analyst Imran Kahn of J.P. Morgan Chase. ‘Of course, some people might not want their DNA indexed. Hence, the robot army. It’s crazy, it’s brilliant—typical Google.’ … ‘This announcement is a red flag,’ said Daniel Brandt, founder of Google-Watch.org. ‘I certainly don’t want to accuse of them having bad intentions. But this campaign of destruction and genocide raises some potential privacy concerns.’

related posts: interesting reading early saturday morning 8/13google & not-for-profit libraries 8/13

algorithmically similar posts:

» google print postscript, 2005-12-06 (score:49)
» google print: google’s evilness is beside the point (Bonus Rant Included), 2005-10-26 (score:41)
» google & not-for-profit libraries, 2005-08-13 (score:38)
» Google Print: whither goest this debate …, 2005-10-31 (score:35)

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