Blown To Bits

Harvard’s Deal with Google Books

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Alex Beam has a good piece today on the complexities of Google Books. This is Google’s program of scanning in books, in furtherance of its general corporate mission of organizing all the world’s information and making it universally accessible. And, of course, to draw more eyeballs to their advertising while they are at it. Nothing wrong with that, and the Books site is, for the time being at least, laudably clean.

Now there was a certain disagreement between Google and certain authors and publishers about whether what Google was doing was legit copyright-wise, and Google recently settled up. That’s an important story. But Beam notes that libraries are having a different worry — they worry about Google becoming the sole point of access to digitized books. Some alternative venues exist and are growing. Certainly we should hope they succeed, simply because corporate monopolies are dangerous.

Beam praises Harvard’s library for dropping out of the deal, because the agreement between Harvard and Google imposed too many restrictions on the redistribution of the digitized material. What he doesn’t ask is why Harvard signed a bad deal in the first place. And the answer is: there was a different librarian and a different president then, and almost no one was consulted about the terms.

In a 2005 post entitled How Harvard and Google Got In Bed Together,¬†the ever-vigilant Richard Bradley noted that Sheryl Sandberg, who negotiated the deal on Google’s side, had been the chief of staff to Larry Summers, who, one might reasonably imagine, had a lot to do with cutting the deal on Harvard’s side (though the name in the news at the time was library head Sidney Verba, not Summers). See also a later post, Harvard Goes Ga-Ga Over Google.

Sandberg has been quite visible during the past few weeks defending Summers’ record on women, while his name was still in the air as a possible Treasury Secretary (for example, writing about Larry Summers’ True Record on Women).

I don’t doubt the truth of a word of what Sandberg says about Summers and women. The issue of women faculty has been way overblown as the source of Summers’ downfall at Harvard. The more serious issues had to do with the way he mixed friendships and business to Harvard’s detriment, most notably the scandal surrounding Andrei Shleifer’s role in Harvard’s venture to help the Russian economy. This deal between Harvard and Google also may have seemed good for both parties but could have used a few more independent eyeballs to prevent the problems that the new Harvard administration apparently identified. Has Summers learned his lessons about the wisdom of a bit more consultation and transparency?

One Response to “Harvard’s Deal with Google Books”

  1. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » Harvard’s Librarian on the Google Monopoly Says:

    […] and public discussion, under unseemly circumstances — as I (as well as others) have previously blogged. We at Harvard helped squander the Enlightenment […]