Reading Room: The Nation-State and Digital Library Initiatives
(Believe it or not, this is a short summary of this chapter.)
In this chapter Elizabeth Losh explores the national and corporate interests that mobilize great digitization projects. From her point of view, digitization never seems to be a disinterested act of historical preservation, and often times seems to be motivated by money. She debates whether corporate giants like Google can be allowed to be the stewards of information and knowledge. Losh thinks that corporate sponsors like Google need to be made more accountable to the government, the universities and other public users. She also explores how readers participate in the digitization process and the degree to which different kinds of participation, from passive reading to actively correcting digitized materials, allows for more or less democracy and product quality or not.
Losh begins her very, very long chapter by correcting a misconception about the digitization process. Through her anecdote about Chester, a town with a digitization industry, Losh clarifies that while digitization is misrepresented in the media as a “purely technical, totally automated, single-step process,” it actually involves a lot of human labor.
in Chester [humans] maintain the large computer servers, add information about illustrations, correct misspelled names and illogical pagination, identify the people and objects depicted in photographs, resolve inconsistencies in the information presented, and append thousands of subject descriptions page-by-page to the electronic documents in the Serial Set. (239)
Nowadays not only universities are interested in digitized materials. Law firms, real state offices, businesses and private individuals have become more interested in federal, state and local documents. A lot of companies and organizations that own and digitize their documents have sought to exert copyright over the digitized materials. As a result, since the Freedom of Information Act, many bills have been introduced in Congress about public access versus private protection of information.
According to Losh, since the craze to digitize began, in the US alone there are about “9 billion separate items to be potentially digitized” which are “worthy ‘for legal or historical reasons’ of preservation forever” (240). There now seems to be a prevalent perceived need that all “important” historical records must be digitized, so that we are NOT ONLY digitizing old records which might deteriorate and be lost, but we are digitizing contemporary documents. For example, there are efforts to digitize more video recordings of legislative proceedings, but this also involves creating better indexing and search tools (241).
Losh does not seem satisfied with a lot of the current efforts to digitize government and public records documents and make them available to the public. She does not seem satisfied with the current indexing and search tools of databases like THOMAS, which archives legislation. Losh complains about the video recording and digitizing of congressional proceedings, pointing out that transcripts were easier to access. While Losh is not satisfied with current government efforts to digitize their proceedings, she is much less satisfied about the government contracting with private for profit companies for digitizing public records. Losh worries that the private interests of companies that contract with the government will influence how they digitize public records.
Before proceeding to her heavy criticism of Government-Google partnerships, Losh reminds us that the Federal News Service (FNS), founded in 1984, and a primary source of “transcripts of congressional hearings, campaign speeches, and other public statements,” was at one time run by a “Christian fundamentalist millionaire who was simultaneously the owner of the Grace News Network” which he claimed “will be reporting the current secular news, along with aggressive proclamations that will 'change the news' to reflect the Kingdom of God and its purposes."
In the section titled “The "Don't Be Evil" Company Does Digitization” Losh is very critical of government partnerships with Google to digitize government and public records. Losh tells us about the copyright controversy surrounding Google’s “Google Books” project, launched in 2007 as Google Print, and its effort to digitize all public documents which were originally in subscription based online archives and in University collections. Losh positions herself against a defender of Google Books, Mary Sue Coleman the President of the University of Michigan. While Losh’s criticism of Google makes sense, I find that she does not necessarily give credit where credit is due, but finds fault in what Google seems to be doing well.
For example, when Losh tells us that “in December 2004 that it would be digitizing the entire print collections of the New York Public Library and prestigious university libraries at the University of Michigan, Harvard and Stanford” Losh does not grant that digitizing this materials would be beneficial to potential readers, but focuses on the interests of publishers and on Google’s haphazard defense campaign which involved posting dubious “user” comments on its Google Books page where they expressed how now that they were using Google books they were so eager to spend money buying books.
Yet while publishers and the Authors Guild sued Google in 2005 for “massive copyright infringement” The Wall Street Journal pointed out that while only 20 percent of books housed in these libraries were in the public domain and yet only another 20 percent were still in print” which means that the publishers claiming copyright infringement where not printing the books anymore! Hence, not digitizing them “left 60 percent of the collections totally inaccessible” (242) This motivated University officials such as Mary Sue Coleman to come to Google's defense in the beginning of 2006, persuasively noting that when very few organizations were engaged in digitizing Google’s digital preservation project would protect against the loss of important documents if catastrophic events destroyed the physical copies or originals.
Losh does not want to grant too much reason to Coleman’s defense of Google however, focusing instead on criticizing the University of Michigan’s President’s impassioned rhetoric. She accuses Coleman of making “dire comparisons” even though Coleman persuasively notes that Hurricane Katrina “destroyed 600,000 items in the Tulane University Government Document collection”! (244) What Losh seems to ultimately have against Google however, is not that they are infringing copyright, but that Google actively engages in manipulating access to information through its search algorithms. Ironically, some kind of manipulation is necessary if search results are going to be relevant at all.
Losh worries about digitization partnerships between government institutions and Google or other private companies. She worries that the Library of Congress’ dependence on private partnerships to digitize affects decisions about what materials to prioritize for digitization and hence not the most historically relevant materials get digitized. Losh favors partnering with or accepting donations from philanthropic organizations than from corporate ones. She is critical of the Library of Congress’s partnership with Coca Cola which resulted in the digitization of a collection of Coca Cola advertising to the exclusion of materials from the competition or about the health concerns surrounding the consumption of soft drinks.
Losh acknowledges that partnerships with corporate sponsors are practically inevitable, since universities and libraries are underfunded, but would like more oversight over these partnerships and disclosure on the part of companies like Google. She regards corporate benevolence with a critical eye and wants “the public” “who is supposedly being served access to the source code of Google's proprietary technologies or sometimes even disclosure of the confidential legal contracts that set the rules for the deal between the participating campus libraries, many of which are public institutions” and Google. I wonder why would the public be interested in the source code? Though perhaps disclosure about the contracts is in order.
Losh worries that Google is a media monster, centralizing all kinds of information, in all formats, available online and using all of this information to sell to advertisers. “As Google . . . expands into social network sites, video file-sharing services, . . . and courseware for universities” it follows users through “their ubiquitous Google accounts, which keep the user logged in” and records their digital preferences, not just about what they buy and sell, but about “what they watch, read, write, and by extension, think” (247). Google admits that this information is sold to advertisers, and Losh worries that it could also be sold to political campaigns:
Since market data is now of great interest to political campaigns that attempt to win elections by stooping to using household shopping information on a voter-by-voter basis, it may not be long before Google is selling targeted advertising if not outright information about private reading habits to those who wish to manipulate elections. (248)
Losh compares Google to “Big Brother,” from the novel 1984, watching our thoughts. Losh worries that if Google also makes “access to electronic archives part of that nexus of digital preferences . . . records would become part of the advertising and marketing schemes of private companies.” Losh cautions that Google’s partnering with the Government or law enforcement could lead to the violation of citizen’s rights, such as the right to privacy and due process. She points out that Google has already cooperated with the Chinese Government, limiting search results for “democracy” and “Tiananmen Square” and claims that ironically during the McCarthy communist witch hunt, when the government wanted to know who was reading “subversive” literature, people’s library records were safer than they are now, when Google and Amazon can track people’s reading preferences.
Among Losh’s other worries about Google are her concern that its algorithms prioritize .edu, and .gov search results over those of private individuals or organizations, unless they pay to appear at the top. She uses the example of a Jim Zwick’s BoondocksNet, a site on Imperialism which at one point was very popular. As the site became more popular with scholars, they duplicated the content under their own .edu domains: this can be called “page high jacking” or “textual poaching.” This created “domain poisoning” which brought up the duplicates up in the search results and the original content at BoondocksNet down because the site was a .com operated by a private individual. After loosing lawsuits based on the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” Zwick closed his site in frustration. According to Losh this case proves that Goolge has also made the Internet less democratic.
The next section “The Cryptohistories of Digitization” focuses on the history of “micro-printing” championed by Albert Boni of the Readex Corporation. Micro-printing is similar to “microfiche” which at one point seemed to be the next big thing, and no one imagined that it would not become ubiquitous. Losh uses this as a cautionary example illustrating the point that Google may not remain the most cutting-edge digitization and search engine techonology. Micro-printing, was similar to microfishe, and consisted on photographing the pages of large volumes and printing them in miniature (on paper?) which could be read using a reading machine with a magnifying class and light. It also started in Chester Vermont. Unfortunately for Albert Boni, micro-printing did not lead to the universal library he envisioned, but gave way to microfishe as publishers and authors worried about unauthorized duplication. Readex eventually switched to selling micro-fishe to libraries.
In the next section “Private Companies and Public Infrastructures” Losh continues to worry about the public-private partnerships between public institutions, such as the Library of Congress and the French National Library or Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise (BNF) and Google. Losh interviewed Jean Noel Jeanneney, former director of the BNF, about his opinion of the partnership between the BNF and Google. Jeanneney criticized Google’s self-portrayals as a disinterested public resource and its underlying assumption that knowledge can be completely embodied online in his book The Myth of Universal Knowledge. Jeanneney sees Google’s identity as Anglo-Saxon and hegemonic and defends the ideology of (French) nation state against it. According to Jeanneney Google privileges English texts over French and non-Anglo texts, including Anglo law over other legal systems of law and argues for the creation of a competing European search engine and online library with Airbus.
When Losh interviewed Losh again in 2007 he continued to criticize Google as a company whose capitalist model biased the site which he also continued to see as spreading American hegemony over the Globe. For this reason Jeanneney and apparently Losh both favor public financing of “culture” projects, even though there doesn’t ever seem to be enough public funding for document preservation and digitization. Losh admits that Jeanneney and most critics of Google rely on it everyday. Jeanneney Criticizes Google's heroic narrative and believes the company is a “fragile Giant.” Jeanneney is obsessed with the idea that the French have to and want to fight American cultural hegemony, even though BNF uses a Google search interface on its webpage. Jeanney expressed skepticism about the ideology of free culture or culture “gratuite” supposedly spread through Google that supposedly denies the value of intellectual labor.
In the next section “The Corollaries of the Virtual to the Physical Space” Losh compares the physical and virtual Library of Congress to the physical and virtual French National Library (BNF). In this section Losh seems to betray some of her own nationalism when she proves more critical of the BNF than of the Library of Congress. She sees the BNF as more restrictive and less democratic than the Library of Congress. Losh stresses that the BNF is a “library of last resort” and does not reveal that the Library of Congress also considers itself a library of last resort and in one way is more restrictive than the BNF. As Losh is right to point out, the BNF does not allow anyone to have access to their special collections or special readings rooms unless the applicant can prove that a) they could not find the same book in another French library or b) they are conducting a research project which requires access to BNF books.
Losh does not point out that though the Library of Congress, like the BNF, has a general reading room, the Library of Congress like the BNF uses ID cards to know who is in and neither of these libraries allow readers from the general public to check out books. The books must be read in the library. Losh spends a long time characterizing the architecture of the BNF as a Facoultian “Panopticon” where readers are constantly tracked through their reading cards. While Losh grants that the BNF “Gallica” or their virtual library, allows readers to view anything they like, Losh uses the BNF as a negative example or foil for The Library of Congress. For Losh the online and physical libraries represent political ideological legacies and she seems to think that the BNF reflects a French cultural conservative custodianism out of step with democracy. Losh also compare the BNF to the British Library, and again she consider the BNF a more repressive library.
For Losh the restrictive spaced of National Libraries lead to perennial questions in a democracy, such as whether citizens have a right to read and what happens to democracy when the right to read is restricted. Other questions related to the right to read in an age of reading on IPads is how the right to read privately is violated by the digital technology that enables this reading while at the same time recording who is doing the reading and what passages the reader highlights. The digitization of the material in national libraries also create the concern in the public that these libraries plan to digitize material in order to destroy at least part of the paper originals or copies. Yet despite predictions to the contrary the new “digital library actually seem to stimulate interest in access to the physical collections rather than sate it” (265).
The final and much shorter six sections of this chapter are titled “Originals and Copies” about how the copies create the original and demand for it, “A Third Way,” about trying to find an alternative to corporate sponsorship of digitization efforts, “The War on Paper” providing a counter argument that paper is more perishable than the virtual document, “The Lady Vanishes” about the “invisible labor” that goes into digitization and the traditional performers of such labor, under appreciated women librarians which powerful men want to replace with machines, “The Wisdom of Crowds” about the practice of “crowd-sourcing” or user quality control, “All Play and No Work” which discusses how reading on digital devices is changing the practice of reading to be more like playing a video game, and “Open Stacks” which again debates whether the digital is more accessible than the physical library.
Of the above final six sections, the most interesting one is “ The Wisdom of Crowds” which discusses efforts by the Library of Congress to use user “crowd-sourcing” to make corrections to its digital and original archives. Here again Losh compares the BNF disfavor-ably with The Library of Congress, noting that when she asked them how much the community got to participate in the creation of digital media and records they were at a loss for what she meant. By contrast the Library of Congress has a page titled “The American Memory” website where regular users or “lifelong learners” note and e-mail them with corrections about their documents and artifacts. The library even created a Flickr page where they have put historical photographs so that people can view them and suggest corrections about the labeling. Other interesting “crowd-sourcing” projects are “Library Thing” a “Facebook for Books” and the “I See Dead People’s [Books]” page where users are trying to create a digital version of the original Jefferson Library sold to the Library of Congress. Finally, as might be expected, even Google is putting together its own user generated digitization initiative called “MyLibrary” in what Losh might characterize as yet another attempt by the giant to characterize itself as benevolent.