September 13, 2009

The Joy of Libraries, a Fireman's Flame, and the Google Books Settlement

"Behind each of these books, there's a man."
- Montag (Oskar Werner) - Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Greetings. Enough words have been written and spoken about the proposed Google Books settlement to -- well, not fill a library, but certainly enough to overflow a bunch of bookshelves at the very least.

Most of this discussion has understandably concentrated on various technical, political, privacy, competitive, and other of the myriad, detailed complexities in play within this contentious arena.

But for a moment, I'd like to back away from the trees and look more broadly at the forest, to consider why the bringing into the light of so many out-of-print and orphan works, as envisioned by the settlement, is so important.

I hope you'll forgive me if I wax a bit philosophically down memory lane.

When I was at UCLA many years ago, I spent a great deal of my free time (when I wasn't hacking Unix system code down in Boelter Hall's basement ARPANET lab) in the various libraries scattered around campus.

Directly upstairs a number of floors from the lab was the Engineering library, and I approached it rather systematically, working my way from first editions onward through the small in size (but dense in content) Bell System Technical Journal and similar light reading.

But the real serendipity was in the other libraries -- the Powell library for one. Directly across the Quad from celebrated Royce Hall, Powell contained a maze of narrow stacks packed with seemingly endless rows of books on every conceivable topic. It was in that very library that a young Ray Bradbury hammered away at a pay-by-the-hour manual typewriter to create the manuscript of his classic novel Fahrenheit 451.

Across campus was the much more modern and utilitarian "Research Library," with its large room full of index cards still a primary lookup technology at that time.

The Research Library, though far more modernistic than Powell, still had its own charms. Avoiding the busy main elevators, I'd ride upstairs in the almost totally deserted brushed aluminum-door rear lifts, with their funky "way too rapid" acceleration and deceleration curves approximating a cheap thrill ride at every visit.

Once upstairs, I'd find some quiet table in a back corner to designate as home base, and I'd start to wander the massive stacks.

It didn't matter what the topics might be. I slowly walked the aisles and pulled books as randomly as I could until I had a good pile, then brought them back to my table.

I won't claim to have completely read all books that I selected, but I tried to give them each a good shot at least. I plowed through new books, somewhat old books, and remarkably old books, as the white noise of the air conditioning vents in the ceiling provided a comforting acoustic force field from the outside world.

Books on philosophy. Books on sociology. A detailed survey of UK telephone switching systems as implemented by the Royal Post Office, circa 1948. Timothy Leary's expansive expositions, where he speculated on direct electrical brain stimulation as a mind expansion technique. Houdini's steel restraint escape techniques (ya' never know when those might come in handy). Book and books, and more books still.

I felt like Burgess Meredith's character in the original Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last" -- when he stumbled onto a treasure trove of library books in a post-apocalyptic bombed-out city.

More books than I could ever read in a thousand lifetimes.

But eventually I wasn't at UCLA any more, and getting back to those libraries, especially given the realities of L.A. distances and traffic, became increasingly problematic.

A realization for me early on in my library wandering days was that so many wonderful books were available to so relatively few people. And as Bradbury's Montag said in his chauvinistic way, there are human beings behind every book in those libraries -- authors whose writing efforts are wasted if their books for most intents and purposes can't be found, can't be seen, and so can't be read for learning, for enjoyment, or just to pass some quiet hours in contemplation of literature.

This is especially true of out-of-print and orphan works, which in many cases are as effectively inaccessible as if they didn't exist at all, their authors' thoughts and sweat buried with them.

That so many of these books and other works have suffered this fate as a byproduct of our existing copyright and publishing paradigms is more than a loss, more than a tragedy really -- it borders on the criminal, especially when technology and resources are now available to lift these works back into the sunlight of wide availability.

For so many years these books have been like unwanted stepchildren, largely ignored as unprofitable or not worth the effort to track down rights holders, and so they have remained lost in the gloom as far as most potential readers have been concerned.

So while I was initially skeptical of some rights-related reasoning underpinning the earliest Google Book Search efforts, I consider the proposed settlement to be a positive breakthrough that I heralded when it was first announced and that I -- even granting its various faults -- still strongly support.

I have previously written of some possible alterations to the settlement that might make it more palatable to various detractors.

But ultimately, I want all possible books -- like those that I loved at UCLA -- to be available to the world, and I consider the Google Books settlement, with its various opt-out provisions and other controls, to be a reasonable means to accomplish this goal.

The financial and technical resources necessary for such a task are formidable. That Google would want to ultimately make a profit on such a venture is not only acceptable, but completely appropriate as well.

And while we can reasonably argue about the settlement's substantive details, my sense is that there are some major forces in the anti-settlement camp whose primary focus and interest in this case has nothing whatever to do with the availability of books, and very much to do with the playing out of business-related and other animosities toward Google itself, overall public interests be damned.

In Fahrenheit 451, a society banned and burned books to keep them away from the population. But in our own society, books that are essentially unavailable are almost as effectively nullified, to the detriment of the global community at large -- and you don't even need to use kerosene and matches.

Let's put out the fires. Please support the Google Books settlement.


Posted by Lauren at September 13, 2009 10:09 PM | Permalink
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