Disintermediation of Dead Tree Storage: Google Books Project

by Robin Harris on Friday, 2 March, 2007

Tech support for books
So you are an experienced reader of scrolls and someone hands you a book. How do you figure it out? That’s the premise of this Norwegian TV skit (subtitles provided). Funny.

Watching that reminded me of a recent New Yorker article about the Google Book Search project.

$800 million to scan and store all the world’s books
I was never much for library research, stacks of notecards, outlines. I love libraries and until recently carted around a large collection of books in addition to about a thousand CDs and some 600 DVDs. Still have about 25 LPs as well, things that I intend to digitize one of these days, like a few disks of the Tiffany transcriptions of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (their best work IMHO) and Chaucer readings in the original middle English.

Finally started getting rid of the books though: just too heavy and bulky. I also realized that I was hanging on to them for largely sentimental reasons: bright college years and such. It’s been a few years since I could pass for a grad student, even in my own memory. So I love the Google Books Project goal to digitize all the world’s books.

Publishers and some authors don’t like it
It is the same problem the record companies are having, only more important to all of us. I mean, who really cares if you can’t get the 13th Floor Elevators first album any more?

Yet so much of the world’s knowledge is locked up in libraries, printed in books that had a total press run of a few thousand, tops. It would be so great to be able to research a topic in-depth from my kitchen table.

So why do we need publishers now anyway?
The cost of on-line publication is practically zero. Preparing the book for publication is still a cost, yet much less than printed books require. I can only think of two reasons why we might still need publishers: as a brand and editorial service, such as Poisoned Pen Press that publishes consistently high quality mysteries and as a marketing service. No printers, no shipping, automated shopping – what else is there? Book tours?

Of course, the opportunities for censorship are huge
Google got bent out of shape when a reporter published Eric Schmidt’s home address using Google search tools and banned that publisher from Google events. So I hope that Google will not be the only way to search the scanned books. Other than that, sounds like a big win to me.

The StorageMojo take
Cheap, persistent storage and broadband can bring the equivalent of the world’s finest libraries to every home and school. That is a win for us all. Especially my aching back.

Books won’t go away. High quality reproduction of art and photographs will outpace what display technology can do for quite some time to come. Ultimately though, books are a technology, just like 78 rpm records, and they are in the process of being superceded by online digital publishing. The industry needs to wake up and rethink their value proposition in a world of cheap replication and storage.

Comments welcome: why will you keep your books? Do you expect your children to? Moderation turned on because spammers use cheap publishing too.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Grant March 3, 2007 at 7:40 am

As far as we know now the useful life span of “dead tree” media is *far* longer than for any modern storage medium. Tree alternatives such as vellum/parchment also have a history of great longevity.

I speak of observed longevity not predicted. Old media materials and formats have their points of vulnerability but EMP, modest heat and humidity combined with the passage of *very* *great* amounts of time, and even the general apparent disappearance of the languages used have not proven insurmountable to most data recovery efforts from old media.

Our own recent history here in the US has shown that device obsolescence/unavailability can render huge amounts of valuable data unreachable. I’m thinking of early NASA data and of older government studies, census materials, etc.

The way that libraries were seduced to microform and coincidentally/consequentially the abandonment of uniquely annotated card catalogs with knowledge of great librarians and library users tossed away is an example of how we may, as a society be induced by apparent “economy” and technical superiority to abandon rather than preserve unique stores of information in favor of a less expensive way.

Increased access and searchability of scanned materials confer great added value; may it be widely successful. I fear, however, the abandonment and careless treatment of the original materials once they are known to have been digitized.

We need to exercise great care with respect to “dead tree”/old media as we digitize it so that we do not end up in 100 years with very great regrets about irretrievable losses.


One of the downsides of electronic information storage/retrieval is the the unfortunate tendency toward a lower signal to noise ratio. Wikipedia is an excellent example of the perils here and how a superb concept can be rendered significantly less useful by vandalism, especially intellectual vandalism.


I cannot remember (other than by lending with no expectation of a return) ever getting rid of a book. Reading a book is a sensual pleasure, possibly eventually only to be enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged.

Brian Mingus March 3, 2007 at 11:18 am

It’s not just a potential for censorship. They have already begun proactively censoring books that the Chinese government deems dangerous.

The method is very nefarious. You can’t publish a book in China that covers banned topics, so Google Book Search in China simply bans all books that are written in Chinese but were not published on the Chinese mainland. This is a very long list of “banned books” indeed.


Eric Haupt March 5, 2007 at 10:33 am

As an IT professional in the storage industry who avidly follows your blog, I agree that the Google Books Project will be an asset to us all. I am huge fan of online research. But I have set of books that I will never get rid of and that’s my Dr. Seuss books. I’m 39 and have the great pleasure of having my 5 year old daughter learn to read using the exact same books I used 34 years ago. The sentimental value is enormous as she adds her own scribbled comments in the books next to the one’s I made as a child. I can’t imagine what technology and storage will look like in another 34 years but if there are any books left in use they will include our copy of “Green Eggs and Ham”. Thanks.

Richard March 6, 2007 at 7:07 pm

Regarding Google in China ….

A lot about Google behavior in China has been already covered by Tom Foremski, on


and it makes interesting reading.

Presumably Google ‘does no evil’ and it has been suggested that they try doing ‘some good’ in China…. for a change!

Hypocrisy and double standards…. who at Google decides what is not evil…?
Is it Eric or Brin.. .. or money walks …. again?

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