I wish Google Book Search would hire a humanist and/or librarians and actually listen to them. I really appreciate digitized books but feel that they could be so much more than they are now.
Here, Siva Viadhyanathan asks of Google Book Search questions that I know librarians have developed a whole discipline to think about. He asks critical questions about the politics of search ranking and privacy of browsing records — questions that have been asked about search more generally but cannot be passed off as unknown territory when it comes to books.
Reading the post about Vaidhyanathan’s questions reminded me that I don’t know of a single librarian or even humanist on the Google Book Search team (and I know two of their engineers and several of their past product managers). My engineer friends’ joking pride at never visiting the college library don’t inspire confidence. I worry that much is lost when the business and engineering of information sciences is left to people trained as engineers. Engineering is hard and important, but it is not about understanding the role of books in culture, knowledge, and power. For a start, intertextuality is a lot more than the overt citations made between written works; engineering and to a lesser extent social sciences literally cite their references to ideas directly, but many works are speaking to audiences you can’t algorithmically parse out of the text. Second, knowledge politics is far more than civic participation; as a start, there’s no such thing as neutral or unbiased so we need to stop talking about your search ranking goals that way. Third, libraries are more than fuzzy search engines and a library is more than a dusty, paper database; if you’re offering to radically reconfigure a whole category of information institution, it would be nice to hear about your hopes for that institution can be in the future and see you taking steps to do that collaboratively. It’s not at all crazy for people to be freaked out about a corporation, where benevolence is a privilege of profitable times, taking such a central role in the distribution of books which had been far more distributed and decentralized. (Disclaimer: I’m not a library historian, so I just mean it had seemed more decentralized to me within my decades of life.)
I have to wonder how the female gendering of library professions is tied in with the relative silence on information studies concerns in Google Book Search from what I can tell from the outside, having used the services and having seen a few talks on it. But the people I know on the team are smart, feminist, and doing what they know they can do within the crazy complexity of making a product that doesn’t breakdown in a crazy mess of powerful organizational actors and infrastructures. This isn’t an indictment of their work so far, which I benefit from. But it is a earnest and concerned call.