Twilight of the Libraries

In a famous episode of the television show, The Twilight Zone, Henry Bemis, “a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page but who is conspired against by…a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of the clock,” miraculously survives a nuclear blast. The lone survivor, he despairs until he discovers that the entire book collection of the public library has been saved as well. Finally, the bibliophile can truly pursue his passion, uninterrupted by anything or anyone, with, as he declares “all the time I need, and all the time I want.” However, after arranging all of the books that he intends to read into perfectly ordered stacks, and situating himself on the steps of the library to begin his literary fete, his glasses slip from his nose and shatter on the stone. Within his grasp are all of the books that he could ever want to read, and yet, his access to them has been denied by a cruel quirk of fate. He can feel the texture of the books’ cover but cannot see what is inside of them. He knows they are there, but can never enter them, can never experience the magic of exploring their hidden worlds. With this terrible knowledge written large across his face, the camera zooms out, reducing Henry Bemis to just another heap on the library’s steps. The narrator delivers his inevitable verdict: “Mr. Henry Bemis [is] in the Twilight Zone.”

We are all in the Twilight Zone, we just haven’t realized it yet. Or so, essentially, writes Robert Darnton, Harvard University’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, in his recent article in The New York Review of Books, “Google and the Future of Books.” According to Darnton, we are all like Henry Bemis, except, rather than having our glasses accidentally break from a tumble, they have been filched by the soft, moisturized hands of Larry Page and Sergei Brin and then ruthlessly and systematically comminuted beneath their canvas Adidas. Darnton alleges that Google, though it has managed to digitize a staggering number of books over the past four years, making accessible to the users of the internet works previously languishing in the backrooms of University libraries, as the result of new plans in the wake of a recent copyright lawsuit, will now be the main obstacle to universal access of these materials. 

Darnton has a problem with the monetization of the library. In particular, he is deeply suspicious of Google’s potential monopoly of access to digital books.  The fact that Google is a publicly traded company and must answer to the powers of profit and not just the altruistic gods of knowledge or the reasonable voice of the people is a real sticking point for him.  That Google has no obligation (beyond its self-imposed promise “of broad access to the Books by the public, including institutions of higher education”) to society at large—that its first allegiance is to its shareholders—is reason for alarm. As Darnton asserts,

Libraries exist to promote a public good: “the encouragement of learning,” learning “Free To All.” Businesses exist in order to make money for their shareholders—and a good thing, too, for the public good depends on a profitable economy. Yet if we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction.

The class action suit leveled against Google in the fall of 2005 for its digitization of copyrighted texts ended in a settlement (pending a New York district court’s approval) that gives Google the digital copyright to all out-of-print books and to any copyrighted book whose author chooses to opt in. Because the suit was a class action, no potential competitor in the digital book trade can make headway in digitizing copyrighted book unless it goes to individual copyright holders one by one or is confronted with a class action suit of its own. So, to mount a real challenge to Google’s dominance would take an incredible amount of time, during which Google could easily move to head off its would-be rival. Furthermore, as Darnton points out, the revenue sharing agreement of the settlement (giving Google 37 percent of the profit and the holder of the copyright 63 percent) effectively allows Google to charge as high prices as it wishes with few checks and balances. Google will have no real competition and no real price ceiling, a combination rife with the potential for consumer exploitation.

The settlement has caused a general uproar. Jeffrey Toobin was perhaps the first to raise the alarm, warning about the possibility of a monopoly in a February 2007 article in The New Yorker, nearly two years before the deal was reached. It was followed by a wave of articles about the Google digitization project altering the publishing landscape. The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, virtually every intellectually reputable paper had something to say. But the pre-settlement debate paled before the veritable storm of criticism ensued when the deal was actually reached. An editorial in The Boston Globe questioned whether the new deal was a “goldmine of ideas—or theft?” And, while even Google’s opponents cannot deny that the books search is providing unprecedented access to a previously unimaginable number of books, they appear to be fortifying themselves for a long legal battle. Objections are being filed from all sides before the window for such action ends on September 4. Consumer Watchdog and Internet Archives have both objected to the settlement on antitrust grounds. And it is not a question of whether others will contest the ruling, only of when.

Distrustful of the pursuit of profit, Darnton too believes that Google will, as a corporation, inevitably choose private good over public benefit. Despite the definite public benefits the project has already created (for example, access to one million books in the public domain) and will create in the future (free access to the database from one terminal in every public library in the United States) all of which Darnton does acknowledge, Google’s digitization drive is something to bewail rather than ballyhoo. Darnton mourns what could have been, “We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now.”

However, the question Darnton never asks is would the “twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria” necessarily be a good thing? Would it be free of the ulterior, or rather, in Google’s case, explicit extra-epistemophilic motives?

Throughout history, storehouses of knowledge have never been built with entirely pure intentions. Ulterior motives have always lurked amidst the stacks. In the Abbasid Caliphate’s famed House of Wisdom, where the learning of Ancient Rome and Greece was protected from the political chaos of those lands, where al-Khwarizmi invented algebra (and his name gave us the word “algorithm”), Muslims appropriated the knowledge of conquered India, turning the Hindu number system into Arabic numerals.  Now considered the first public library, the library of San Marco, founded by Cosimo de’ Medici in 1444, was created as power publicity, as a means of instituting the Medici’s dominance in Florence. It was a vehicle of what Dutch historian Johan Huizinga calls a “cruel publicity,” an attempt to move from the medieval ostentation of private wealth into the modern power practice of influencing the civic realm.  Even the Library of Alexandria was not born out of benevolence. Ptolemy Soter starved out Athens until it relinquished its knowledge and enabled him to build the greatest library ever, a repository of humanity’s cultural production that would endow his Alexandria with the wisdom of the ages. While scholars from throughout the world were allowed to come and study at the library, texts were not to be shared with other countries. The Ptolemies banned the exportation of papyrus and confiscated many a scroll from Alexandria’s visitors.

In modern times, libraries retain their hidden agenda.  France’s Bibliothèque Nationale served to consolidate the rule of the people during the French Revolution when, beneath the banner of knowledge, it confiscated all of the private collections of the First and Second estates. John Dewey’s project (through his decimal system and his company, The Library Bureau, which peddled library equipment) was to make libraries efficient and, in turn, transform its frequenters into efficient beings. The public libraries of America were not simply wells from which Americans could drink as deeply as they wished but served to baptize new waves of immigrants, acting as headquarters of cultural assimilation. From their midst, social workers would venture forth, armed with books promoting American values that they would distribute to the children of the tenements.

Furthermore, access has always been limited to even the most embracing  institutions of knowledge. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose where the library holds what seems to be all knowledge, the librarian Jorge de Burgos restricts access, going to such lengths as murder, and even burning down the library, to prevent anyone from reading Aristotle’s book on comedy. Similarly, even the most voluminous of libraries have been selective in their circulation. At the New York Public Library, whose motto, as Darnton reverentially invokes, is “Free for All,” minorities were made to feel unwelcome for most of the 20th century. Who can forget the protagonist of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain looking at the library’s steps and deciding not to enter its hallowed halls because “everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity?” Today, at the libraries of academic institutions, like the one at Harvard over which Darnton presides, dedicated to open and liberal discourse, one needs to have a university identification card to gain access to the stacks, or otherwise must undergo the mind numbing trial of bureaucratic paperwork.

And, of course, inside the libraries, there remain bureaucratic layers to navigate. In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, no one is allowed to remove books from the shelves except for the librarians; all scholars are at their mercy. In France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, the same is true. Where in history has there been unmediated access to knowledge? Even Google does not promise this. One searches Google according to an algorithm of its engineers devising. Why would the fact of power melt away now, just because we’ve changed mediums from the physical to the digital?

Eben Moglen, a Professor of Law at Columbia University and a leading proponent of “free culture,” makes a powerful case that the digitization of the world does change things and profoundly so. What Google has done and what it is doing is in no way comparable to the accumulation by libraries of old, not because of its scale, but because the very nature of the object being assembled, the book, has transformed. For all of history, books were objects—things you could hold, touch, taste, even, if you wanted to—that had a certain cost to reproduce.

The digital books of today no longer have physical lives. Moglen declares in his 2003 “(dot)Communist Manifesto,” “The dominant goods in the system of production—the articles of cultural consumption that are both commodities sold and instructions to the worker on what and how to buy—along with all other forms of culture and knowledge now have zero marginal cost.” To reproduce a digital text, all you have to do is press “download” and now you have a copy. Or, if it’s on your hard drive already, a left click and a selection of the command “copy” or “duplicate” will suffice. With just your right index finger, you can now have two digital copies of King Lear where just a millisecond before you owned only one.

In light of the ease of replication Moglen has a list of demands. They are sevenfold:

1. Abolition of all forms of private property in ideas.
2. Withdrawal of all exclusive licenses, privileges and rights to use of electromagnetic spectrum. Nullification of all conveyances of permanent title to electromagnetic frequencies.
3. Development of electromagnetic spectrum infrastructure that implements every person’s equal right to communicate.
4. Common social development of computer programs and all other forms of software, including genetic information, as public goods.
5. Full respect for freedom of speech, including all forms of technical speech.
6. Protection for the integrity of creative works.
7. Free and equal access to all publicly-produced information and all educational material used in all branches of  the public education system.

While Google complies with six of these precepts, it flagrantly violates the first, and that is the desire held dearest to Moglen’s heart. The fact that post-settlement Google clings to the copyright, even though it is legally mandated to do so, is downright immoral: “when everyone can possess every intellectual work of beauty and utility—reaping all the human value of every increase of knowledge—at the same cost that any one person can possess them, it is no longer moral to exclude.”

The library that Google assembles via its Book Search is not this hyperleap forward, as Darnton, despite his suspicions of commerce, believes to be the case. Moglen would not deny that Google’s prodigious digital translation is a tremendous step forward for human knowledge, but Google’s “library” model remains mired in the material realm. In its refusal to share all information, to allow the reader unfettered access to its archives (though, of course, unfettered still means mediated by its algorithm), it denies the reader what is rightfully his. Google Book Search still operates as if it were dealing with physical forms.

Within Moglen’s idealistic yet compelling worldview Google’s post-settlement project becomes more then just a thing of which to be wary—it is an outright violation of the proper order of the digital universe.  To return to the position of poor Harry Bemis, for Moglen, rather than having our glasses broken, all of our books were snatched up while our backs were turned. We found the public library with all of its riches and just as we were about to set ourselves down to enjoy this bounty, we discover that it is all gone.  We can still see perfectly clearly, but the books themselves have vanished, taken from us by the long hand of Google. Or, if they’re still on the steps, we can no longer feel them, we can no longer find them. They have been stolen from our grasp by Google’s potent black magic.

In the Middle Ages, the frontispieces of books were inscribed with curses directed toward potential book thieves. The curses were varied and elaborate, indicative of just how highly these books were prized: “If anyone dares to carry this book off, either secretly or publicly, may he hang by the throat as ravens pick out his eyes,” “For him that stealeth from this library, let [the book] change into a serpent into his hand and rend him. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of hell consume him,” “He who steals or sells this book, let him die the death, let him be fried in a pan, let the falling sickness and fever seize him, and let him be broken on a wheel and hanged, Amen.” Chained to altars and stone pillars, the book was protected so vigilantly, by physical and spiritual forces both, not simply because of the knowledge it contained, but also its very corporal existence was immensely valuable. A book was worth, quite literally, a fortune. It was a rare and unique treasure.

The digital volume, however, has no aura, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s term. It is no more than straight knowledge, purely a means of access into the author’s world. It is infinitely reproducible. There is no cult surrounding its object. There is no object for a cult to worship: just 0s and 1s creating an image on a screen. If the experience of the internet can be defined as the solitary, private exploration of a social, public sphere, then the book is at its essence is the prototype of the internet: the private experience of a virtual world in conversation with a myriad other worlds.

It might not be a revolutionary claim, that the bodiless book is the Internet before the Internet (innumerable others have done so using Jorge Luís Borges’s “Library of Babel” as an illustrative example), but it makes for an easy way to conceive of the problem of ownership with which both Darnton and Moglen wrestle. No one owns the Internet. While individuals or corporations may lay claim to a website address, or many addresses, as a whole, it is outside of the realm of any single interest. To own something implies control and no one has managed to truly control the Internet. The Chinese government has tried over and over again, but it is impossible to assert autocratic force. Google, Yahoo, Dogpile, Lycos are highways but it is always possible to take the back roads. The Internet is too big and individual experience is too unique to completely control either, to be able to own either.

It is inevitable that Google’s black magic monopoly will fall, not because another great competitor will emerge to challenge it, but rather, because millions of competitors already exist. The innumerable Henry Bemises all have a magic of their own. Armed with the ability to copy and share files, it is a real possibility that they could destabilize Google’s predicted dominance. By virtue of their powers, peer-to-peer networks could become the sites of knowledge circulation, just as they became the vehicles of music and video traffic and undercut those respective industries. Rather than a great new digital library, we might instead see the locus of knowledge shift to the fringes. Google will find its power diluted as biblio-Napsters surface as Google’s stockpiles are replicated and disseminated throughout the World Wide Web.

The power dynamic of the library will not disappear; it never will. Its ulterior motives will not be exorcised. However, if the library goes, the particular type of power dynamic it propagates cannot help but go too. If book traffic is not organized around a center that can be controlled by a singular force, then, while power dynamics do not disappear completely, the possibility of a coherent, sinister manifestation is muddled by the masses. There are simply too many actors with too many disparate interests. 

Men and women at their computers already fight against Google Library’s hegemony, some even unknowingly, undermining its monopoly as they share book files, as they copy texts, as they circumvent and occasionally steal from the giant who staked its hold on the ancient idea of Alexandria. The end to that dream is unavoidable. The power of the book declares that Google Book Search must face its predestined curse. It is what is written. And, as Google Books dies, a death that has already begun as piracy becomes typical practice, the Henry Bemises of the world salvage the great library’s contents in preparation for the day when we finally will be able to read them.