As Ashley has just posted, we’ve just reinstated the links to Google Books that were appearing in the right-hand column of relevant records. Back in March we were pleased to be among the throng of those incorporating the new Google Books API. If Google’s mission is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ who are we to argue? What self-respecting library service wouldn’t want to be a part of a project that promotes the Public Good?
Then something unusual happened — we got complaints. Not a great many, but still a vociferous few who questioned why Copac would give Google ‘personal data’ about them as users. Several of us in the team went back and forth over whether this was actually the case. My own opinion was that a) this was not ‘personal’ data, but usage data, and therefore not a threat to any individual’s privacy, and b) even if we were giving Google a little bit of something about our users and how they behaved, what does it matter if the trade-off is an improved system? Nonetheless, we went ahead and added that small script so that Google only spoke to the Copac server. No dice.
I was not all that surprised that our attempt at a workaround wasn’t effective (it would have been nice to have heard something back officially from Google on this front, but we’ll live). I am still wondering if it matters, though. Does it makes sense that we ‘pay’ Google for this API by giving them this information about Copac users — their IP addresses and the ISBNS of books they look at? (Is this, in fact, what we’re doing? Paying them?) Isn’t all this just part of the collective move toward the greater Public Good that the entire Google Books Search project seems to be about?
Ultimately, right now, yes. This is the trade-off we’re willing to make. So we’ve reinstated the links, but also added an option under Preferences for now to allow users to de-googlise their searches. Turning off the feature for good would be reactionary to say the least (and perhaps, more to the point, in the political landscape in which Copac operates, *seen* as reactionary). Right now, if you’re in the ‘Resource Discovery’ business, then a good relationship with the most ubiquitous and powerful search engine in the world is of no small importance.
Indeed, behind the scenes, our colleagues at RLUK have been working with Google on our behalf to sign an agreement which will mean that Google can spider Copac records. The National Archives has recently done this, and from what I hear anecdotally from people there, it’s already having a dramatic impact on their stats — thousands users are discovering TNA records through Google searches, and so discovering a resource they might not have known about before. We are hoping that users will have a similar experience with Copac, especially those looking for unique and rare items held in UK libraries that might not surface through any other means. We are eager to see what sort of impact a Google gateway to Copac will have, and we know it can only enhance the exposure of the collections. We’re also exploring this option for The Archives Hub.
Of course, this also means that Google gets to index more information about Copac web searches. David Smith’s article last week “Google, 10 years on. Big Friendly Giant or Greedy Goliath?” highlights some of the broader concerns about this. To what extent should we be concerned about the fact that a corporation is hoovering up information about our usage behaviour? I am always suspicious of overblown language surrounding technology, and Smith’s article does invoke quite a number of metaphors connoting a dark and grasping Google that we’d better start keeping an eye on, “Google’s tentacles are everywhere.”
But invokations of the ‘Death Star’ notwithstanding (!) I think we’re all learning to be a bit more cautious about our approach to Google. It may not be the Dark Lord, but it’s no ‘Big Friendly Giant’ either. For now, we’re pleased to be able to plug in Google’s free API (thank you, Google) and that Copac will soon be searchable via the engine. But nothing is entirely free, or done for entirely altruistic purposes — this is business after all. We just have to keep that in mind and talk constructively and openly about what we’re willing to pay.
[Updated to add: Likely much too late in the game, but I've just spent an hour or so listening to The Library 2.0 Gang's podcast with Frances Haugen, product manager for the Google Book Search API.Â Tim Spalding (LibraryThing) and Oren Beit-Arie (Ex Libris) were among those to pose some of the tougher questions surrounding the API and specifically the fact the it only works client-side and forces the user into the google environment.Â According to Frances, future developments will include a server-side API, and that an ultimate goal would be to move to a place where the API can be used to mash up data in new interface contexts.Â We'll certainly be watching this space:-)]