A Democratic Quality to Digitization

Robert Darnton used this interesting phrase in his recent NPR comments on the Google Book Search project and the Settlement (a 7 minute interview here).

There is a democratic quality to digitization but if those supplying it are simply trying to maximise profits the whole thing could turn sour. (The Infinite Shelf .. On the Media, 27 March 2009)

Is it true that there is a democratic quality to digitization? I think there may be a profound truth there, and getting at it, may do something to reduce or quieten Darnton’s worries. He is right to be worried. If Google were to become the predominant and monopolistic supplier of books (and other print, digital print, resources) through the web, that would be a disaster. But that is a big if because digitization of our print heritage is a broadly democractic shift. It is a democractic shift in much the same way as the invention and adoption of print led to, or was one of the necessary preconditions of the democratic thrust of the Enlightenment (see Darnton’s original post on Google & the Future of Books). Darnton rightly points out that the democracy of the Enlightenment was partial and restricted in its reach by privilege

Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear legally without a royal privilege and a censor’s approbation, printed in full in their text. (NYRB 12 February 2009)

The web is putting the final nail in the coffin which restricted the privileges of print (bolstered by the legal privilege of copyright), initially to men (rather than women), the rich and then the wealthy, the formally educated and which even now in our own time excludes some. The democratization implicit in digitization works in two ways. It works for the universality and openness of distribution because it is now a fact that digital copies and digital access are available at marginal cost for everyone. A lot more stuff will be free, partly because advertising which accompanies or supports it can generate profits, but also because it really is dirt cheap to provide free web access. So cheap that to anyone who provides digital services, providing some services free, some access to content for free, is a no-brainer. Digital access is strikingly open and democractic in its thrust because it actually (and obviously) costs more to exclude someone or anyone from access to a web resource than to enable it for everyone. ‘Open’ is simply, for the supplier, the lowest cost access model on the web. Authenticating, selling, registering for or targetting access costs more. But the democractic bias of digitization works also at the point of creating digital resources. It is much easier to create and if necessary re-create digital resources than to look after them in any other way.

Moving from the democratic thrust of free access from digitization, a digital process is like a printer’s press in that it enables us to originate digital masters. Digitization as a method of data capture, a means for transforming cultural objects to web presence, is also becoming more feasible and more necessary. Digitization as a process is democratic because it is repeatable and reliable and affordable. Digitization is also likely to be of higher quality if it is various and competitive (Google’s problems with quality of capture are notorious). Digitization as a transformative process, relying on software, computers and scanning instruments, is becoming easier and cheaper at something close to Moore’s law. Even Google’s massive digitization project is now much easier and cheaper than it was when they started. Since digitizing books (films, works of art, music etc) is becoming more affordable and easier every year we should have more of it. We will probably soon have consumer-targetted, hand-held, intelligent scanners.

The real danger in the Google Book Search service and the Settlement is that libraries and publishers should start to think that digitization is best left to the uniquely specialised Google. To prevent a monopoly we need a choice of services which digitize books and print resources and serve them openly (or as commercial services) to audiences through the web.

I think Darnton is right, there is a democratic thrust to digitization and it is in all our interests that there should be lots of alternatives to the digitization engine that Google has created with the help of the New York Public library, the Oxford, Harvard, Michigan and Stanford University Libraries (of course many more univerisities are now in the Google ship). Surely, the Google Books Library, (for it is rapidly becoming that), needs to be watched so that it does not become an engine for monopoly pricing, but the best safeguard against this is to create and sustain alternatives. Having played a part in kicking off the Google initiative, Harvard can help the next and better proposition that comes along. Darnton as Harvard’s librarian should be there to support it.

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