Digitizing Our Libraries

Michael Gorman’s article on the Google library digitization initiative (Commentary, Dec. 17) sadly demonstrates only too clearly why the nation’s academic libraries are, with a few notable exceptions, losing their grip as the guardians of knowledge and the dissemination of scholarship.

He dismisses “massive databases of digitized whole books” as “expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.”

No one believes that electronic communication will ever obliterate all previous forms. But imagine the reaction of a monk in the 15th century upon first hearing about the printing press. It would almost certainly have been similar to Michael Gorman’s. He would have thought of a thousand highly plausible arguments why it would never catch on.

We are at another such turning point in history today, and it is very understandable that many librarians cannot get their heads around it. But it does not augur well for the future when the president-elect of the American Libraries Assn. places himself in this category.


I am convinced that academic and other institutional libraries will, in the longer term, become ever more important as the (electronically stored) foundation of knowledge on which the global cyber infrastructure of the future will depend. But this requires librarians who are visionaries, not Luddites. I predict that, within 10 years, this initiative by Google and the libraries associated with it will shatter the cozy library world as nothing has since the printing press.

Michael Freeston

Research Coordinator

Alexandria Digital


Library Project

UC Santa Barbara


Gorman’s insightful analysis of Google’s latest info coup is right on the money.

A library is an organized collection of materials representing a good proportion of the world’s knowledge. Google is an ocean of varied fish, some of which may be summoned to the hook with the right question, leaving many others, and often the better ones, behind in the brine.

Most users don’t even know the right question to ask to find Milwaukee. How then are they to search the bottomless sea of Google to discover the meaning in the texts of William Blake or Shakespeare? They will be fortunate if their search turns up the address of their local public library, where both knowledge and information are found in abundance, and the assistance is both human and free -- and that includes instruction in how to navigate search engines, Google among them.

Michael McGrorty




I take exception to Gorman’s view about Google’s creation of the next great library. Clearly he has confused information with knowledge.

It is parenthetic that all knowledge is derived from information, and Google’s project will contribute enormously to the dissemination of knowledge worldwide. It will save researchers years of time and millions in cost just beyond imagination.

It will speed up the convergence of poor nations by having access to the wealth of information that would not have been available to them otherwise.

Regardless of the motives and financial implications to Google, libraries and copyright holders, Google’s library project is laudable and a great service to mankind’s leap forward.

Nake M. Kamrany

Los Angeles



Re “Touched by the Turn of a Page,” by Geoffrey Nunberg, Opinion, Dec. 19: I was 12. After six years of checking out books from the upstairs children’s section of the small branch library near my home in New Rochelle, N.Y., one day I got bored with the selection and wandered among the shelves of grown-up fiction on the ground floor. A fat book with an intriguing title caught my eye. So I checked it out, took it home and was swept into the epic world of the Trask family created by John Steinbeck in “East of Eden.” I didn’t understand many of the sexual references (how times have changed!), but Steinbeck’s captivating plot and prose engendered a lifelong love of reading in that 12-year-old.

I like the convenience and instant gratification of the Internet. But I agree with Nunberg -- nothing will ever replace the joy of serendipitous discovery that waits on the shelves of an actual library.

Barbara Beckley