Google and the future of the book

There’s a great new organization and blog forming, focused on the “Future of the Book.” It’s a fabulously interesting question, of course, to ponder what’s going to happen to books in the digital age, and it’s a great idea to put some minds together and try to not only speculate but also to shape that future.

So far, I think books have proven remarkably resilient. Five years ago, I began preparing my publishing service business (which I’ve since sold) for that future by moving away from book design and towards Web design (the lousy design of this site notwithstanding). Looking back now, I think we would have been better off staying with books. I’m not a big reader of books, spending more and more of my leisure reading time online, but I do love their physicality. I enjoy the feeling of progress as I flip page after page, moving through a complex plot or argument. The Future of the Book begins to examine how (or whether) to duplicate that experience in a digital environment.

I was surprised to see just one article on the blog about Google Print and Google’s new library initiative, this one concerned with the commercialization of libraries. This is a significant question, no doubt, as we begin to wonder what sort of bias a commercial library service will add to the process of library research.

Of course, libraries are already commercialized in that the products they loan are commercial products. Books are published with the intention of making a profit — many of them with libraries in mind as their sole customers. Journals accept advertising. What’s the difference between seeing a Google ad framing the book page you’re viewing and seeing a print ad in a journal?

What I see as a bigger question, however, is what Google Print does to the process of reading a book. As the service works now, I can only read three pages in either direction from the text I’ve searched for. If I want to read more, I can do a new search, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to “find” the exact page I’m looking for — after all, I don’t know what words are on it. There’s no way to flip through the entire text, the way I can when I pick up a book in the library to see if it’s worth reading. I can search for terms in the seven pages I’ve been provided, to see if they come up again in other spots in the book, but I never learn of interesting tangents I might never have imagined, several chapters down the road.

Google, of course, offers links to Amazon and other places that will be happy to sell you the book in question (as long as it’s in print or used copies are available), but at that point, why bother with Google in the first place? Many student researchers won’t have the patience to wait several days for a book to arrive in the mail (or the budget to afford it). Or you could head on down to the library to pick up the book there (if it’s available). The promise of Google is to unlock information that it never occured to human indexers to tabulate: some interesting observations about jazz in a psychology text, or a part of a chapter about the Pope in a book on 15th century British history. If it never occurs to the researcher to rifle through the right book, the information will not be found.

I don’t think there’s much doubt, either, what Google’s ultimate intention is. They don’t just plan on linking to — they plan to sell you those public-domain and out-of-print books themselves. If they can coordinate with e-book manufacturers (and they will), they’ll charge you to download the books so that you can browse them more effectively. As e-books become more powerful, we will be able to browse through them as easily as we can with paper books. Will this “commercialization” be a bad thing? Not if it makes books as searchable as the Web, but as tangible and legible as old-fashioned paper books.

The bigger question is, when that day arrives, will anyone still be interested in reading them?

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