Big Time

I'm biased on so many levels. I was practically born reading and writing. I've been doing this journalism thing since my days editing the WA-HI Journal, and getting paid for publishing since college, not to mention this whole editing EContent magazine thing. All of these factors make me content-centric to the extreme. While—with the notable exception of librarians and publishers—most of the world probably didn't even use the word "content" until the Web, I focus on the stuff so closely that I'm content cross-eyed. Focus is a good thing, but myopia isn't. Once in a while I have to get my head up off the page (or screen, as is increasingly the case) and look around at what's going on in the world. This doesn't always mean a change of scene, though—this week content made the evening news.

It took household-word Google to bring content to the lips of average Joe Anchorman, but there it was, featured amidst political scandal, global unrest, and the latest about Hollywood hotties. Without a doubt, everyone in our industry (and even those pretty far afield) have heard something about Google's activities over the past year, not the least of which was its much-hyped IPO. The company's most recent splash was a major coup for Google Print, which started off earlier in 2004 via partnerships with publishers to index texts to facilitate optimal searching and sales. While the first phase caused some ripples in the econtent pond, the second phase, announced in December, saturated the media, both trade and mainstream.

Google will digitize the collections of Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and The New York Public Library so that users worldwide can search them with the company's ubiquitous engine. Co-founder Larry Page said that before they started Google, he and partner Sergey Brin dreamed of making "the incredible breadth of information that librarians so lovingly organize searchable online." My first thought was, of course Google wants to get the good stuff online and optimize its engine so that Web searching evolves from slogging through the info-sludge into the voyage to content discovery that a librarian takes when set upon an info-seeking mission. At last, quality comes to quantity.

But Jill O'Neil, director of planning and communications for NFAIS, an organization for groups that aggregate, organize, and facilitate access to information, had an excellent rebuttal to my take: "One person's best content is another person's drivel." Touché. "Maybe there's an obscure work of literature that, once digitized, sparks a thought or an argument that will inspire other great works," she went on to say. "If that's buried in some library's vault, then everything Google does can help find it." As O'Neil put it, "None of us can tell what will spark another individual's creativity in a future Renaissance, so let's digitize all we can. Let's dump it all together and let people splash and play in the ocean." The dam obstructing such a seemingly simple premise (get everything online and let the knowledge-seekers assess its value) is funding. So, with Google bearing the costs of scanning these vast collections, the greater knowledge pool grows not only deeper but a whole lot wider.

Don't get me wrong. The Google Print project isn't about all content being freely available to do with what you will; copyright laws still apply. But I wonder if it ultimately will be about making content free in the economic sense of the word, which has to a large extent been the mission of libraries. They have partnered with Google, which may well have been founded upon altruistic principles, but is a publicly traded company now.

While it may remain somewhat true to its roots, projects like these will need to pay off fiscally to keep Google afloat. From the first page of the project, Google Print pages include links to booksellers from which texts can be purchased, but the links are not paid for by booksellers nor does Google earn revenue from purchases. The company does generate revenue from clicks on contextually targeted ads that appear on Google Print book pages, which is shared with the publishers of the books. It is unclear how this will apply to the library phase of the project, particularly given its initial emphasis on rare, scholarly, and out-of-print titles. The company has also patented a "subscription-like access" process for digital content.

In the meantime, it is exciting that a private company would go to such lengths (this is expected to be a decade-plus project) to help digitize the world's content. The Google Print project joins laudable efforts like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, as well as database providers like ebrary and NetLibrary, in an effort to make more works available to more people across the globe. O'Neil hopes that projects like Google Print will reach far beyond content-central: "I want a world that offers oceans of information, but I also want tools that can filter it all down to the one single drop that is exactly what's required."