being radical about google


this post is part scholarly reflection, part impulsive flare.


“Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Isn’t that cute?

Only if it wasn’t what libraries’ mission has been for centuries.

So here we have a very-much-for-profit company’s mission vs. a not-for-profit-and-quite-broken institution’s mission. What happens when the company extends a hand for help to the institution achieve its goal, money-rich as it is?

A clash. To the Library, it requires a review of concepts. A revision of roles and goals. A critique of business-mediated “access” to information. A reflection on what information is for. A cry for real access.

—Or does it, really?
It seems librarians are ceasing having serious, academic, ethics-based discussions about Google, and just submitted to adapt to it, to use a common term found in the literature.

A good example is the acceptance of Google Books.


“By leveraging the capability of Google to provide one of our services, libraries can focus greater attention on the broader goal of improving the quality of research and education. […] All we really know is, if we [librarians] could have, we would have invented it [Google]. This is evident in our ability to quickly incorporate it into our library services and to respond positively to their requests to partner in beta tests and content digitization.”

Here, Phipps and Maloney (2005) jump from liking the fact that Google provides quick answers to simple straight-forward questions, thus freeing the librarian to pursue other more complex work within the library, to accepting “requests to partner in beta tests and content digitization”. Quite an Olympic jump! How being good at providing quick answers to simple questions qualifies you to perform content digitization responsibly—an obvious reference to the early days of Google Books? And how time-consuming a service of providing quick answer to simple questions (they are talking about country’s-capitals kind of question) was in a library anyway, for a librarian to feel so liberated for not having to perform it thanks to Google? What are we trading? This was 2005, however; they still had the benefit of doubt, and excuse to be hopeful.

“It is the end of preservation as we know it. But the future of preservation in the age of Google is precisely where it has always been: transforming artifacts into useful new forms and extending their useful life.”

Really, is it? This is from 2010 “Preservation in the Age of Google: Digitization, Digital Preservation, and Dilemmas”, by Paul Conway. After having very wisely pointed out that preservation must “help guarantee that more value is added through the digitization process than is lost thought the transformation of original resources to a new medium”, and having thoroughly discussed various dilemmas of digital preservation today, he then simply, suddenly hands out everything to Google. A big problem here: considering Google’s digitization (business-driven) as just another form of digitization, assuming it’s “transforming artifacts into useful new forms”—is it? And how does that come about?—and that it is “extending their useful life”—is it? How? Being very positive, maybe he wasn’t referring to Google when talking about the “age of Google”, in the end…?

A third and last example is Robert Darnton‘s article “The Research Library in the Digital Age” of 2008. In it he lists EIGHT concerns he has about Google Books initiative (then, Google Book Search), very disturbing ones, that point structural and practical problems of the enterprise. But then concludes saying “long live Google”, as all the problems of Google Books will make it unfit to replace the physical research library, so no need to worry! Well, exactly because Google Books has so many profound problems that it is extremely worrying for libraries. Isn’t the initiative claiming to be extending the distribution capabilities of the library? Doesn’t the initiative count with full cooperation of major libraries? So it can’t be considered outside the scope of the library, as if it was something separate, a Google’s issue alone. It isn’t. It’s about the library’s commitment with proper distribution, quality and complete material, thoughtful preservation, and the possibility of unmediated access. None of these present in Google Books. So why comply with it?

Besides, the public sees Google Books as a complement of the library, to the point of asking if we need a physical library anyway, now that we have Google Books.

This is not help. This is disservice.

Fortunately, a number of people are aware of it, and provided great critiques based on philosophy and ethics:

In “Google Books, Libraries, and Self-Respect: Information Justice beyond Distributions”A. L. Hoffmann reflects on the concepts of social justice and self-respect in the context of the library vs. Google Books debate. She argues that if Google does further the cause of social justice when it comes to information, it does so in a very limited way, “along narrowly distributive lines”; that compared to libraries, Google’s digitization initiative actually “exposes and exacerbates injustices with regard to information, technology, and institutions” that go beyond the distribution issue. She demonstrates that the quality of Google’s book scans, the politics of its online search, and Google’s conception of information undermines the company’s claim of social justice.

She took as reference the important and insightful 2000’s article by L. Introna and H. Nissenbaun, “Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters”, in which the authors highlight the search engine design as a political matter, and not a merely technical one. They argue that bias established by market mechanisms in search engines end up contradicting the very principle of the Web as a public good; that the “public good of the Web lies not merely in its functioning as a repository for seekers to finding things, but as a forum for those with something to offer”. According to this framework, both Google Search and Google Books (a search just made more specific) hurt the prospect of the Web as public good by applying opaque market-driven algorithms to its functioning.

And then there is 2012 Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s book, “The Googlization of everything: and why we should worry”, in which the historian explores the ethical impacts of having the Web and its knowledge content in the hand of a for-(big!)-profit company. I’m only 20% through but can’t recommend more.


In practical terms and in real life, Real Access to Proper Information is not a Right. So rare it is to find, it turned out to become a banner of combat, and a dangerous one—so much that gets people killed.

2 thoughts on “being radical about google

  1. Very nice post. As you say, there has been little serious discussion about the digitisation projects of Google, Microsoft and the like, more a fascination with shiny new things. And I fear we will see much the same with the data set preservation in which institutions like the British Library are getting so interested.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment! Yes, while reading the literature about it I was really stunned by the utilitarian discourse of the great majority. Are we in a ‘science delusion’ vibe, while ethics lag way behind?


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