Google, the Khmer Rouge, and the Public Good

Like Daniel into the lion’s den, Mary Sue Coleman, the President of the University of Michigan, yesterday went in front of the Association of American Publishers to defend her institution’s participation in Google’s massive book digitization project. Her speech, “Google, the Khmer Rouge and the Public Good,” is an impassioned defense of the project, if a bit pithy at certain points. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights with commentary.

In two prior posts, I wondered what will happen to those digital copies of the in-copyright books the university receives as part of its deal with Google. Coleman obviously knew that this was a major concern of her audience, and she went overboard to satisfy them: “Believe me, students will not be reading digital copies of ‘Harry Potter’ in their dorm rooms…We will safeguard the entirety of this archive with the same diligence we accord our most sensitive materials at the University: medical records, Defense Department data, and highly infectious disease agents used in research.” I’m not sure if books should be compared to infectious disease agents, but it seems clear that the digital copies Michigan receives are not likely to make it into “the wild” very easily.

Coleman reminded her audience that for a long time the books in the Michigan library did not circulate and were only accessible to the Board of Regents and the faculty (no students allowed, of course). Finally Michigan President James Angell declared that books were “not to be locked up and kept away from readers, but to be placed at their disposal with the utmost freedom.” Coleman feels that the Google project is a natural extension of that declaration, and more broadly, of the university’s mission to disseminate knowledge.

Ultimately, Coleman turns from more abstract notions of sharing and freedom to the more practical considerations of how students learn today: “When students do research, they use the Internet for digitized library resources more than they use the library proper. It’s that simple. So we are obligated to take the resources of the library to the Internet. When people turn to the Internet for information, I want Michigan’s great library to be there for them to discover.” Sounds about right to me.

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