cat_reader

Recently, I waded through the stacks at New York University’s Bobst Library, a giant graveyard for words and ideas secreted inside millions of dusty volumes. As anyone who has visited a library knows, conducting research is often a slow, arduous process. The text within each book is protected by a wall. All I have to go on is perhaps a snippet of text, a footnote in another book or academic journal, or a glancing mention in an article or column. And with these I must decide whether the potential pay off is worth the hassle of looking up a book’s call number and trudging into the stacks to fetch it. Then I have to leaf through pages until I find what I think I’m looking for.

You’d think this process would have been improved with the advent of search engines and digitized text, but it hasn’t. Millions upon millions of books have been published over the past couple of centuries yet precious few are completely searchable. Each year in the US alone, about 350,000 books are published. While you can find a book’s title you can’t search inside the actual book without either buying or borrowing it.

This lack of discoverability not only relates to the text in a book, it hobbles an author’s ability to effectively market one, too. Most booksellers, Amazon included, make it easy to find a title you are already looking for but are lousy at promoting other books. Many authors, me included, end up excerpting portions of our work like I did with my new book. My publisher placed excerpts with Slate and Wired UK, and I published portions on PandoDaily and an identical passage on Medium. Give readers a taste, or so we hope, and they may be convinced to buy your book.

Far better would be to make a book completely searchable so whenever a user looks for a term and comes to your book, she can buy it. Otherwise it sits on a dusty library shelf or on a server somewhere, unloved and unread, like they do at NYU’s Bobst Library and other libraries across the country. It’s a colossal waste, each book a ripple in an ocean of information, very difficult to get to.

This is why I’m pleased with the Google Books decision that came down yesterday. A federal judge ruled that Google’s scanning of 20 million books and making them searchable then offering short bursts of text is covered by “fair use.” In his ruling, the judge pointed out that Google’s massive book scanning project makes it easier for researchers and helps libraries obtain digital copies of books, promotes old, forgotten books, and offers greater access to to them. Google is not depriving authors of income because the company doesn’t sell these scans or make available complete digital copies.

Although the two litigants were the Authors Guild and Google, and the guild vows to appeal the decision, it doesn’t represent my views. I’m glad it lost. I don’t agree that Google robs authors of income, because the vast majority of us don’t make a cent off our books in the years after they are published. If Google is willing to take on the task of scanning each book and making them searchable, then setting up a way for people to be able to buy them right there and then, it should also get a cut of the action.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Cultural critic Evgeny Morozov has a more “subversive interpretation” of Google’s grand mission, which the company claims is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” What if, he asks, Google’s true motive is “to monetize all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable?” (Hat tip to Mathew Ingram of Gigaom.)

“Letting Google organize all of the world’s information makes as much sense as letting Halliburton organize all of the world’s oil,” he adds.

Morozov was not restricting himself to books, where much of the information is trapped between two covers and largely inaccessible, existing in a balkanized state. Still, oil can’t choose to make itself available through other means. Books can, through their authors and publishers. Google can’t prevent others from replicating its scanning project while oil companies can keep out other oil companies.

Google doesn’t create or control this particular content — in this case, the books themselves. It simply helps us find the information contained within.

That’s good for everyone, whether you trust the company’s motives or not.

[Image courtesy Found Animals]