Saturday, August 1, 2009

Google Book Project: A Contrarian Perspective

Google's mass digitization project, that is the Google Book Search Project, is often severely criticized by academics and librarians. The critiques typically run along the lines that it's a corporate initiative to make money and that the once-included librarian community is now on the outside looking in. I can see this critique. Sadly, it's standard critique from the left (of which I am a part) but it is the privileged left that make this critique. The progressives that want to (or are forced to) grapple and harness threads of opportunity in Google's hegemonic machinations have a different take. Last Wednesday, Howard University's School of Law hosted a forum that showcased some of these useful progressive perspectives on the Google Book Project.

My point is that Google's hegemony isn't strictly deterministic, nor is it monolithic. Ala Michel de Certeau, there are tactics to Google's strategies. Or, to invoke other revolutionary refrains, by any means necessary...using the master's tools to dismantle the house...etc. These adages are familiar and the point is that engagement with this hegemony is inevitable and necessary. It can even yield more socially just outcomes. The only untenable action that is truly stricturing and oppressive is the weak liberal (v. strong engaged liberal) lament made from privilege spaces (i.e., flagship research one schools) without any alternate path toward social justice (e.g., Google will give inner city kids in D.C. access whereas a local elite institution will not).

There are a few quotes below, some links, and a fantastic video of Rhea Ballard-Thrower (a must-view for librarians especially).

"The idea that a student in Boston at a very exclusive private school can read the same books that a student somewhere in an underfunded, urban public school, that they can have the same access to the same materials is actually just amazing," said Professor Rhea Ballard-Thrower, law librarian at the Howard law school. "Books are the great equaliser."

"This project is part of a larger effort to democratise knowledge," Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said during a forum on the book settlement, hosted by the Howard law school. "To me, this project is so crucial because it helps to level the playing field at the most fundamental intersection of rights, knowledge and advocacy."

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