Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Google's Gift of Books

As part of the settlement between the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and Google, each public library in the U.S. can get one free access to the Public Access Service to Google Books. (That's defined as one "terminal" per library building.)

I'm sure that many folks are quite impressed at this generosity: free access to the public! What's not to like? Well, keep reading.

Nothing's Really Free
Some of you may remember the late 1990's when Microsoft donated computers (running Microsoft software) and modems to public libraries, making it possible for them to offer free Internet access to the public. This was a great boon for the libraries, but there were numerous hidden costs. First, the libraries had to scramble to find space for the workstation, and finding "extra" space in a library is enough to make one hate the law of physics that precludes two objects occupying the same place at the same time. Then they had to get phone line access to the place where the computer would sit, and this had to be a dedicated line because it would be in use most of the hours that the library was open. The librarians had to learn about the Internet so they could help the public, which was especially difficult because the same computer that served the public was the only one that the librarians could learn on. As the Internet access became more popular, the libraries had to manage the demand for the service, setting up ways for patrons to sign up for time on the computer and mediating disagreements about whose time it was. In libraries where often the staff didn't have printers attached to their own work computers, they also had to find a way to manage the fact that users who didn't have a computer at home needed a way to take away what they found online.

All of these were costs for the libraries. They may seem like minor costs, but if you're thinking that then you're probably not working in a public library. I often say that public libraries are like old-age pensioners: they're on a fixed income that doesn't keep up with inflation, much less the demand for more services. (And my impression is that they've already been living on dog food for a number years now.)

Some costs were not so minor, however. For example, I discovered that the small branch of my public library nearest my home was paying for the phone line that this "free" internet access used. The problem was that library phone lines were considered business lines and they were being charged per-minute rates. This library was paying $2000 a month or more for the use of the phone line attached to its one public Internet workstation. That's more each month than Microsoft paid initially for the equipment it provided to the library. Yet Microsoft was considered "generous," while the story in the press ignored the costs to the library; costs we taxpayers were all bearing.

Nothing in this should be construed to demean the gift from Microsoft or the value of adding public Internet access to libraries. The story here is that free has costs, and those costs could be considerable. The story is also that some of those costs, perhaps many of those costs, get passed on to the public, even though the public doesn't have a say in the choice to support this service.

The First One is Always Free

That same small library that started with one of the Microsoft computers now has something like six public Internet access workstations that are rarely sitting unused. That initial gift led to the development of what today is an essential public library service. It is often the case, however, that in cash-strapped times libraries have to make trade-offs, dropping old services (like magazine subscriptions) to pay for new ones (like Internet access). Should the single access to the Google Books Public Access Service not suffice, libraries will need to add more subscriptions to meet the demand. It isn't known what this will cost, but unless it is ridiculously cheap, it eats into the already strained budgets of the libraries. Eventually, the cost will be absorbed into the budget as part of normal expenses, but there will be a painful phase at the beginning. Before they introduce this free service, libraries need to know what the costs will be in 2, 3 or possibly 5 years so they can begin the budget planning process that will allow them to provide full service to their users, if that's what they wish to do.

Just Say No

If taking advantage of the Google Books Public Access Service is going to strain library budgets, why don't the libraries just say no? They aren't being forced to accept the free service, after all. This creates a real dilemma for public libraries, the same dilemma that was created by the initial free Internet access: the mission of public libraries is to level the information access playing field for everyone. To do so, public libraries need to keep up with new information resources and services as they become available; to purchase or license these; and to give equal access to all. Generally, public libraries lag behind their richer cousins, the academic and research libraries, in providing information services. Academic libraries had access to the current crop of online versions of abstracting and information services about a decade before public libraries began to provide these to their users. But if public libraries don't provide these services as they become affordable, we end up with a two-tiered world of information haves, those with a connection to an academic institution, and information have-nots, the remainder of the public.

Equal Access for All

One option that libraries must consider when new services arise that are outside of their budget capabilties is whether they will choose to provide the service with a user fee attached. I remember this in academic libraries when the first article indexing services were available through Dialog in the 1970's. These services were quite expensive (they billed by the minute, if not the second, as I recall). Libraries tried budgeting a set amount to provide the service to their users, but the appeal of the "free" service was such that the entire year's budget was exhausted within months. For the remainder of the budget year, users had to foot the costs for the searches. Academic institutions can decide to give some users (professors, researchers) services that are not available to others (undergraduate students). They also can decide to charge fees, looking on this as part of the cost of attending the institution and making use of its facilities.

The public library mission of equal access to all, however, argues against requiring fees for services, other than those nominal fees designed to prevent squandering of resources (e.g. 25 cents for each book put on hold), or cost recovery for consumable materials, like photocopy services. But generally speaking, once a user has entered the library, it's an "all you can eat" situation. This is not the nature of Google's online book service. The settlement agreement is incredibly complex in terms of what is free and what is pay-for. For certain works, a certain number of pages can be viewed for free, after which one must purchase the book to see the rest. The number of pages that can be printed may be limited, and there may be charges for printing.

We do know that public libraries will not be able to offer remote access to their free subscription, only on-site access. That, of course, excludes many users. We also know that there may be advertising included in the service, and it may include the ability to purchase books (online or in hard copy) and additional services. In other words, the library's users become the service's customers.

Product Placement

When Microsoft began giving away software to libraries (actually, making them pay a pittance for the licenses), an article in Salon stated:
In the case of computer companies, giving away free product is a way to increase market share, influence future purchases, create good will at relatively low cost, and get a tax write-off for your efforts.
While possibly cynical, it's also true. Giving away samples of your product is a time-worn approach to building a customer base.

Charity is giving people what they need, not what you want them to have or what you would like them to buy in the future. While the provision of a free, one-user license to libraries may be generous, it is not charitable. It should be viewed in the same way that free samples of cereal are. Actually, the better analogy harks back to the days when cigarette companies gave away free packs of cigarettes on city streets, hoping to encourage non-smokers to become smokers. It is best to look on the free access to Google Books as part of an advertising campaign; it is definitely not Google and the AAP following in the footsteps of Carnegie. It's as if Carnegie had given each city enough steel (his product) to build part of a bridge.

Did Anyone Ask Public Libraries Before Deciding This?

One of the great difficulties that we have in understanding the Google/AAP settlement is that none of the participants can reveal the nature of the negotiations; they are all bound by a non-disclosure agreement. So we don't know who represented the libraries nor what they asked for. We don't know if the Google Public Access Service was offered by Google or demanded by library participants. We don't even know who the library participants were. A logical assumption would be that the library representatives in the discussions were limited to representatives of the current Google library partners. If that is the case, then they are all representatives of research and academic libraries. We don't know if any of them surveyed public libraries, even informally, about the desirability of this service, or about the burdens it might place on those libraries as it has been formulated. Could there have been a different deal that was better for public libraries and equally acceptable to the major players?
There is very little in the settlement that would allow one to imagine the precise nature of this service and how this service will be implemented and managed.

Public librarians I have talked to are very concerned about this matter. There is still plenty of time to work out details, but is there a plan to engage a representative group of public libraries to do the planning? What happens if the service, as envisioned in the negotiations, doesn't meet the needs of public libraries, or doesn't fit in with their current online systems?Are there different needs and capabilities in large urban public libraries and small rural ones? Will it be possible to serve these equally?

Where is the Public's Voice?

At the negotiations there were lawyers representing the AAP, lawyers representing Google, and lawyers and librarians representing libraries. But the public had no lawyer at that table, no representative. While each of the parties could have desires to serve the public, they each had a primary self interest that they were there to serve. Without public representation, it is not possible to say that the public's interest has been served. Without public representation, the public's interest has not even been solicited, much less heard. Yet, this settlement has a great effect on the public and its relationship with a major public resource, the collective wisdom contained in hundreds of years of publication of text on paper. I will address this in a forthcoming post.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this (and all your other commentary on the Google Books Settlement).
Here's a couple more niggling points about the "Free Public Service" on one "terminal" per library: I saw no mention of whether the hardware is included. Is the "terminal" part of Google's gift? Or is the library to provide it? I also find it interesting that they say there will be a per page fee for printing and that it will be split between Google and the Books Rights Registry. This begs the question of who is paying for the printer, toner, paper, maintenance...
Ricky Erway

Anonymous said...

This is an agreement to settle a suit between two parties. This is not legislation negotiated by Congress. That the partner libraries had any voice at all is amazing as they were not parties in the suit. Those involved were not negotiating from any strength at all.

Anonymous said...

Limited number of pages, advertising? Wait, how does this service differ from the free service that anyone with an internet connection can and will be able to get at books.google.com? I thought I knew, but now I'm confused.

In thinking about if public libraries should take the 'deal', part of the equation is what they're _getting_. Now it's not clear to me. How is what's being offered to the public libraries any different from what has and will (post-settlement) be available from books.google.com?

Karen Coyle said...

Jonathan, from what I understand (and that's a big caveat) the public access product will allow users to view the entire book, while the regular 'books on Google' will allow you to view only 20% of a given book. I don't have a good handle on the 'books on Google' because it isn't described in detail, but I believe that it doesn't allow copy/paste (ditto the PAS), and doesn't allow printing -- but the PAS does allow printing (with royalty fees to be paid). I don't think that anyone knows if there will be advertising in the PAS (I'll add that to my list of questions). I also don't know if the PAS will include the 'buy this book' button -- but since the PAS doesn't exist yet, it's an area where we need to be prepared to negotiate with Google on its features, at least those which are not prescribed in the settlement.