Last week, Google deployed an exciting new feature. When you search for the title of a book (say, John Le Carré’s best-selling A Legacy of Spies), it offers the usual array of information in the infobox that accompanies other results: author, publication date, where you can buy it. Now, however, it also adds another section to that column, showing public libraries in your area that offer digital editions of the volume. Click through, and you’ll be taken directly to the library’s catalog record for the book, allowing you to download it—or at least reserve a copy.
Cool as this feature is, there’s reason for caution. By design, Google tends to vacuum up information, pulling in and spitting out data from a multitude of sources in ways that sometimes threaten to crowd out all other outlets. Increasingly, its infoboxes, which repackage information from elsewhere on the web, aspire to the endpoint of our inquiries. Look up an Excel technique, for example, and the site will autonomously populate a to-do list, potentially saving you a click.
As many have pointed out, that convenience often comes at a price, and not just for the sites that have been denied ad revenue. Earlier this year, Tom Scocca noted in Gizmodo that Google was grabbing information from a passage he had written years before about the wrong way to caramelize onions in response to queries about the right way to do it. Though the company corrected that mistake soon after, many writers, including here in Slate, have identified similar problems with its infoboxes.
Inevitably, the trouble with these issues is that Google presents itself as if it were the final arbiter of all information, even when its results are unvetted and algorithmically generated. In that light, some skepticism about Google’s redeployment of library data may be warranted. Where libraries have long been spaces in which the curious could find their own answers, Google threatens to supplant them. Ultimately, that’s as much a problem for Google as it is for libraries, since it can only be as good as the information it draws on.
As John Palfrey, author of the book Bibliotech, told me over the phone this week, these concerns aren’t entirely unreasonable. “I think the risk for libraries is to say, Oh, Google is doing it. We don’t need to do more,” he said. According to Palfrey, past interactions between the search giant and these public institutions speaks to why that might be an issue: “The fact that Google developed Google Books so aggressively, and in fact drew on library content, did in some ways put libraries on their back foot in terms of digitization.”
That said, Google’s new e-book listings may actually help libraries. While the features lists local holdings of digital content, you still have to click through to the library’s own site to make use of it. What’s more, it doesn’t tell you whether the title you’re interested in is currently available. (Public libraries license finite numbers of any given e-book, just as they can only buy so many copies of a physical volume.) Accordingly, Google isn’t—at least in this case—pretending to have all the information that we need. That initial uncertainty may be a good thing, since the mere act of visiting a library’s site invites you to look at what else it offers, even if the thing you came in search of isn’t there.
George Williams, the media relations manager for my own local Washington, D.C. library system, took just such an approach when I asked him about the new feature. “I think an argument can be made that when a member of the public is looking for an e-book and the public library shows up as an option, it actually might drive that customer to the public library,” he said. “What they want to know is, Where is this book and how can I get my hands on it? When one of the options is, ‘your library,’ that’s awesome.”
Williams suggested that libraries could find other ways to take advantage of large tech platforms. By way of example, he pointed to BooksforDC, a browser plug-in created by a local developer—a Washington resident unaffiliated with the library itself—named Emanuel Feld. When you visit Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes & Noble’s sites with BooksforDC installed, the extension creates an overlay on the page, telling you whether the title you’re looking at is available in the D.C. Public Library system. Like the new addition to Google’s literary infoboxes, it’s a helpful reminder that there are often free alternatives to the things you might otherwise have bought.
When I mentioned BooksforDC to Palfrey, he applauded its existence, suggesting it was a great way for “libraries to get in that flow between people and the knowledge that they’re seeking.” As libraries around the world continue to grapple with the ways we access information today, one hopes that they’ll develop similar tools. Google’s new feature may be promising, but it’s still what libraries themselves are doing that matters most.