Monday, January 19, 2009

Google and Out of Print Books

Google and Out of Print Books

I have written about the proposed Google Book Settlement, and opined that it is good for the reading public. I believe it is also good for Higher Education. But it is not Great. One might say that Google est bonus , tamen Google est non perfectus.

I live and work in the cat-bird seat of the Academy: the Library. The Academic Library has its nose in everything that every scholar has done, is doing, or hopes to do. To us, Google Books is just another information feed, yet it could be a hell of a game-changer.

One book may tell the story. It’s a volume that I picked up at a yard sale for $2.50 titled Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America. The author is Rush Welter, then a professor at Bennington College. The book was published by Columbia University Press in 1962, and reprinted in paperback several times, but has been out-of-print for perhaps 40 years.

I have the habit of reading a few pages from something nearby while my computer goes through its boot-up routines. I opened Popular Education shortly after the election of Barak Obama. The introduction begins with this line: “In order to understand the American people, one must understand their belief in education.” Welter goes on to assert that, in addition to a materialist conception of politics, ideas themselves have power, and in America the ideals of popular education and democracy are inextricably linked and have a profound social impact.

Welter asserts that ideas can become embedded in the national psyche, and bring about structural change; ideas like “equality,” “opportunity,” “justice,” “fairness,” “the right to vote,” and yes, “In America, any child can grow up to be President.”

Professor Welter’s book is relevant to our time, a time when American ideals seem to have broken the wall of racism, and renewed our belief in ourselves. But the book came out in the 1960s, a time when a growing body of students and their professors were turning against patriotic clich├ęs to the televised reality of an inhumane war in Southeast Asia, and the ugly face of racism in southern killings and northern riots.
Welter’s work was buried under the movement to reveal the ugly forces at work in our society. Ideas and ideals? Forget about it.

Welter died in 2002. His friend and colleague, John Higham, Professor of History Emeritus at Johns Hopkins, penned a memorial in the Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians. Of Popular Education he said:

This may be Rush's finest book. Drawing on an abundant literature of political debates, scholarly inquiries, and popular tracts over a span of two centuries, it explored divisions of opinion with a fullness that matched its commitment to a single unifying theme. I suspect that it is no longer much read because educational history has turned decisively away from the history of ideas in order to immerse itself in the social history of schools and of the families, ethnic groups, and classes they serve… Sometime in the late 1980s, after we had become good friends, he remarked one day that he did not expect his work to be recognized during his lifetime.[i]
From a strictly commercial view, Welter’s book was dead long before he passed away. A few used copies can be purchased online, but once those are sold, or trashed, his work will have been buried ‘neath the sands of time.

Buried, save but for the nation’s libraries. There are 846 copies of his book being held in college, university, and public libraries around the country. So if I want to read Welter’s book, I can travel to any one of the 13 libraries within ten miles of my home that own a copy, or I can ask my local library to borrow it through inter-library loan.

Libraries keep things. And Research Libraries keep almost everything. Harvard keeps twelve million volumes. Stanford, Yale, UNC, and Penn all have between six and ten million books. At the Penn Libraries, we keep almost two million volumes in a high-density storage facility in the old printing floor of the Philadelphia Bulletin Building. Princeton, Columbia, and the New York Public Library have a shared storage facility in a large tract of land in central New Jersey. Books from these units can be retrieved within 48 hours.

But once Google comes fully online and Popular Education as well as virtually every book in any of these facilities is discoverable, readable, printable, even print-on-demandable at your local library or bookstore or coffeeshop—then do 846 libraries still really need to keep copies?

The answer will certainly be that they do not, and the trend toward regionalization and consolidation of holdings will accelerate dramatically. One can see the day when only a few copies will be preserved, with one or two designated as “master” copies, to be held forever.

They will be held forever for at least two reasons. The first reason is that the best preservation method for the text that is contained in a book is…..a book! Ink on paper outlasts every other text storage methodology that we have devised—certainly every digital technology.

There are currently no physical mechanisms that guarantee stable digital storage forever. And there is every reason to think that digital languages will change over time, requiring a massive expenditure to convert old data to new forms. Think of the 5 1/4 inch floppy disk. How many of today’s computers can read from this device? And if the text on the floppy disk is in an early software format like Wordstar, then what?

Paper and parchment have proven to be very durable long-term storage devices. A book of Shakespeare’s sonnets, printed in the 17th century, can still be read by today’s reader without the aid of any device, save perhaps glasses.

The second reason that physical copies of book will be maintained is that the book itself is an object of scholarly interest. Dozens of centers for the “History of the Book” have developed around the world. To such scholars, the physical object itself—the book as artifact—in essential.

It is reasonable to expect that some vast library collections will become, in effect if not in name, Museums of the Book. And that people will travel to these museums to look at books, read books, and study books. Many of the great “special collections” libraries already play this role. One thinks of the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Morgan Library in New York, the Huntington Library in California, the Houghton Library at Harvard. And, of course, the Library of Congress.

[i] Organization of American Historians Newsletter, May 2002, “In Memorium”

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