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For whom the Google bell tolls?

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Is there an optimistic side of the Google rainbow?

A powerfully influential and ubiquitous enterprise

Is Google discrediting the role of librarians? Since its flotation on August 19 2004, hardly a month goes by without a new Google service being launched, attracting various degrees of public interest. The colossal Google Print project, however, really grabbed the headlines. Since then, as librarians risk being replaced by Internet technology at the Welsh University of Bangor and a European coalition has formed against the giant shadow of Google print, LIS professionals have been looking at Google initiatives with increasing adversity trying to decide whether Google may jeopardize their future. One thing for certain is that the deceptively simple search engine, with its white interface and primary colours, has become a powerfully influential and ubiquitous enterprise, so much in the Internet infrastructure as in the news.

Changing habits and attitudes

As a popular engine to search and retrieve information Google has already changed habits and attitudes. These shifts have fostered the belief in the public opinion that the roles of librarians and information professionals all over the world were being slowly but surely superseded. The example of Bangor University, in Wales, could well illustrate those fears. Eight skilled librarians out of 12 had their positions threatened because they were no longer deemed cost effective. It was suggested that technology like that provided by Google made their role redundant and did not justify budgets for their employment. This, of course, prompted the support of librarians around the world who feared that such measures would set a precedent and be replicated in other universities.

Eileen Tilley, librarian for social science, business studies, psychology and lifelong learning at Bangor, and one of the eight who face unemployment at Bangor University, declared to the Guardian newspaper: "The University thinks that because we have the Internet it no longer needs skills teaching, that people can do literature searches themselves. I would say this has, in fact, complicated the resources. They need librarians to guide you through it. So many students think they can do those searches on Google. That's not true. Users are confused and need guiding through this".

On top of this context surrounding digital resources the Google Print project has hotwired more vehement responses. While the monumental digitization project was greeted with unabashed enthusiasm by some, it was vigorously dismissed as an incumbent danger by others. But the impact Google Print will really have is still proving elusive.

Organizing the world's information

Google has committed at least US$150 million to scanning a dizzying 15 million books (an estimated 4.5 billion pages) over six years from four partner university libraries and the New York public library. Google's explicit ambition is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". The universities involved include Michigan University, Harvard University, Stanford in the USA and Oxford University in the UK. For Paul LeClerc, CEO of the New York Public Library, Google Print reflects the "most transformative events in the history of information distribution since Gutenberg", and is clearly a technological as well as a digital revolution.

A Damocles sword?

Judging by hostile reactions to Google Print the perceived threat has been twofold. On the one hand concerns of a professional nature have been expressed by those who fear that making the content of libraries available online might simply toll the bell for library services by minimizing or discrediting the role of librarians. And therefore give ground to yet more bleak ordeals for librarians in the aftermath of Bangor University's incident.

On the other hand it feels like a Damocles sword poised above culture with "the confirmation of the risk of crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world", as Jean-Noël Jeanneney, President of the French National Library, explains in his article published in French national newspaper Le Monde on January 22 2005. Jean-Noël Jeanneney is arguably one of the most fierce opponents to the project. He denounces the suspicious capitalistic motivations behind the project which undermine its very cultural objectives.

A counter offensive

He has since then launched a counter offensive with the creation of a European coalition. As many as 19 national libraries in Europe have joined the ranks of Jean-Noël Jeanneney to undertake a similar project of digitization of non-English resources. Google has welcomed the move and, in the words of Adam Smith from Google, "is very encouraged by the establishment of the European Digital Library initiative".

Somehow there is an optimistic side of the Google rainbow. Some observers stress the fact that the digitization process will mean that the sheer volume of information becoming available online will require the expertise of librarians to guide searchers.

As for smaller libraries, Ann J. Wolpert, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, writes in March 2005 issue of American Libraries: "There is a big value-add potential here for small libraries to contextualize and customize information from search tools to better serve their local clientele. In addition, books that Google scans from a partner library's collection will (or could) have a direct link to find a book in a local library, using OCLC Open WorldCat data. This will facilitate a library's efforts in reaching its community".

Below is a sample of Emerald articles on digital libraries and Google

Chowdhury, G.G. (2002), "Digital libraries and reference services: present and future", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 58 No. 3,
pp. 258-283.

Dawson, A. (2004), "Creating metadata that work for digital libraries and Google", Library Review, Vol. 53 No. 7, pp. 347-350.

Falk, H. (2003), "Developing digital libraries", The Electronic Library, Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 258-261.

Gorman, G.E. (2006), "Giving way to Google", Online Information Review , Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 97-99.

Joint, N. (2005), "Aspects of Google: bigger is better – or less is more?", Library Review, Vol. 54 No. 3, pp. 145-148.

Seadle, M. and Greifeneder, E. (2007), "Defining a digital library", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 169-173.