Archive for January, 2009

Google Book Settlement

Friday, January 30th, 2009

There has been some recent activity and commentary around the proposed settlement of the two cases involving Google Book Search. First, Tim Vollmer from ALA’s Washington Office has pulled together an extensive list of blog postings and other commentary. This is a great resource and I hope Tim continues to keep it up to date.

Also, over at Talking Points Memo’s TPMCafe Book Club there has been an broad ranging discussion of the settlement (or at least in mid-January there was). The discussion is organized around Randall Stross’ recent book Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know. The discussion then really takes off with separate posts by Nicholas Carr, author of the Atlantic piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” NYU law professor James Grimmelman, who posted several suggestions for changes to the settlement the trial judge should insist on in his own blog The Laboratorium, David Vise, author of The Google Story: Inside The Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time, and Siva Vaidhyanathan who is preparing his own Google book on his blog The Googlization of Everything.

Much of the conversation raises concerns about Google’s market dominance and their exclusive provision of access to the contents of publicly funded libraries. So far we have little evidence of any bias in the presentation of the scanned books. However, we need to be wary of leaving so much of our documented culture in the hands of a single corporation who may intend to “Do no evil” but who are still primarily responsible to the financial benefit of their shareholders. Remember, Google already gave in to the Chinese government and offers a censored version of search within the borders of the country. The monopolization of the commons could be their next (mis)step.

Robert Darnton makes a similar point in his delightful piece for the New York Review of Books where he too questions the commercialization of content of our library collections and wonders if this may lead to what has happened with scholarly journals since WWII. He also raises concern over the likely result of the settlement to set an extremely steep barrier for any other entrants into this market.

At the recent discussion at ALA’s Midwinter meeting, Dan Clancy from Google said a lot things that should give us more confidence that many of these concerns are over blown. But many questions remain. This is a story worth keeping an eye on.

— Dan Lee

Ethic Bites: Free Speech

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

For several years now, I have been a regular listener to Nigel Warburton’s and David Edmonds’ podcast series, Philosophy Bites. It–along with Alan Saunders’ Philosopher’s Zone from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a few other podcasts–exemplifies what I love about the medium. Programming, whether originally aired on the radio or born digital, can reach out and find its audience unencumbered by geographic location, broadcast scheduling, or other factors. Or maybe I should say, audiences can reach out and find programming unencumbered by their locations or the vagaries of personal schedules.

In either case, having enjoyed Philosophy Bites so much, I was very pleased when Warburton and Edmonds agreed to do Ethics Bites, a series of 14 podcasts on applied ethics for the Open University.

The ethical issue most of interest to this blog is, of course, Free Speech. To establish the importance of free speech and its limits, Nigel Warburton speaks with Tim Scanlon, the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard. The 17-minute discussion both lays out the issues entailed in free speech and gives Professor Scanlon’s position on those issues. I can’t imagine a more concise and easy to comprehend introduction to the topic.

I also think Professor Scanlon merits the attention of librarians because he moves the defense of free speech from a grounding in individual rights to “a more nuanced view — which takes into account the interests of both speaker and listener, and empirical considerations about the danger of granting powers of regulation to the state.” The dialog touches on areas of political speech, offensive speech, hate speech, and pornography, all of which easily migrate from the public square to the library.

Recordings and transcripts of Ethic Bites: Free Speech can be found here. These podcasts and a wealth of others can also be found through iTunes.

—Paul Beavers

Intellectual Freedom at the MLA Conference

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Inside Higher Ed is a consistently interesting source of news and opinion on higher education issues. I frequently share postings from its Monday through Friday newsletter with my fellow librarians and recommend they sign up to get it themselves. From time to time, it does post articles specifically on academic librarianship, but its real value to librarians lies in broadening our perspectives to the wider context of higher education. In fact, many of the postings most relevant to our profession never even mention libraries.

One of those postings was a December 30, 2008 report by Scott Jaschick entitled, “David Horowitz does the MLA.” Horowitz is, of course, David Horowitz of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the “Academic Bill of Rights.” His appearance at the Modern Language Association was, to say the least, controversial because He has frequently attacked the MLA and many other organizations in higher ed. Horowitz was asked to speak on a panel with three literary scholars, one of whom supported some of Horowitz’s views. The Radical Caucus of the MLA was rumored to be planning a disruption, but did not and the panel spoke as planned.

As Scott Jaschick pointed out, “Horowitz didn’t break new ground in his critiques of academe – nor did Horowitz’s critics in their analysis of him.” But I do think it merits note in this blog. The MLA stood up for intellectual freedom by demonstrating a willingness to allow all voices to be heard, even one many members feel to be destructive, ill conceived, and dishonest. The event both as a panel discussion and as an object of controversy and discussion seems to have served both sides as an opportunity to advance their ideas and make their critiques. The MLA demonstrated its faith in its members’ and in the wider academic audience’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and sense from nonsense for itself.

Librarians, of course, are frequently involved in this issue. We build collections representing the full range of thought and opinion and defend those collections when objections arise. As a collection developer in religion and philosophy, I have purchase a considerable number of works on the Evolution vs Creationism controversy, sometimes buying works that, from my own point of view, offered weak and confused arguments but that spoke with the real voice of a position’s proponents. I have also been in the position of having to discuss with library staff the importance of retaining books that they felt unfairly critized or even ridiculed their religion. In all these cases, of course, the key is representing all voices and trusting to our patrons to make up their own minds.

I also think I should say that when I say “all” I mean “all’ and not “both.” The American Media has a distressing tendency to reduce every issue to two positions and to decide that they can demonstrate their unbiased reportage by making sure that a speaker for the pro position is always balanced by one from the con. In truth, little in this world can honestly be reduced to simply oppositional positions.

I also don’t feel there is a need to develop collections in which each of the positions has parity in amount of materials that represent its view. It would be absurd for the Modern Language Association to invite Horowitz or one of his supporters to speak every time a scholar advanced an argument with which they disagree. Similarly, I make no attempt to balance ever book on evolution or even every book criticizing creationism/intelligent design with one promoting creationism/intelligent design.

The other thing that Scott Jaschick’s article and the many comments on the article make clear is that controversy is emotional and those who engage in debate must be prepared for the rough and tumble. Academic freedom lets your voice be heard, but it also lets anyone else who feels like giving it a shot make a reply.

—Paul Beavers