Friday, July 24, 2009

More on Google Books Discussion at Boston Public Library

Take 2: Hal Abelson:

The notes I made the other day skipped over some major points of the discussion at the Boston Public Library on the Google Books Project and Settlement proposal. For instance, I did not cover Professor Hal Abelson, who, not being a librarian, had some pretty interesting things to say. As I mentioned in my first blog post, none of the speakers really got to turn loose, and it was obvious that they had lots more to say than they had time to speak. It was a little frustrating in that way, and it would be a wonderful symposium program at some upcoming meeting (hint, hint!) to pull these speakers back together and give each of them more time to talk. Maybe have round tables so that each of them could host audience members to talk, because the audience members also had interesting things to contribute to the discussion.

Prof. Abelson teaches electrical engineering at MIT, and appears to be a very popular professor, with lots of very interesting projects both past and present, including visits to Google. His first comments were that the Google Books Project raises antitrust issues (though he did not really pursue this in detail). Then he commented, “The future is here; it just doesn’t come to all at the same rate.” Which I took to be a brief conversational gesture at the issue of the deepening information divide between information haves and have-nots. Abelson then went on to talk about the Google Gospel, as it were: The way that Google believes it is marching toward a Manifest Destiny of total control of all information, the transformation of all written culture. He mentioned the example of how moving music from CDs to the I-pod changed listening experiences as listeners now shuffle their music in ways that could not happen before (classical to rock to jazz to whatever). Abelson said the new arrangement breaks things up and allows us to rework them in beautiful ways. It is easy to get caught up in the beauty and the excitement of the new rearrangements and overlook what is being left behind.

Then Abelson offered a very interesting comparison. He noted that the King James translation of the Bible was the most popular book in the English language. Yet it is not available in full anywhere on Google, because, apparently, each text scanned is claimed to be under copyright. Abelson then shared a chilling little anecdote about one of the major translators of the Bible into English, William Tyndale, was burned at the stake during the reign of King James (actually, I checked, and it was Henry VIII who ordered him arrested for heresy n 1536, and they did, at least, strangle him before burning ).

The other very cool thing Abelson said was the very last comment:

What is going to happen to library values (that is, as the pressure builds with prices rising, budgets tanking, patrons’ demands surging?)

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