Free Culture Proceedings
Southern Chapter Annual Meeting -- Keynote

Free Culture: Siva on Google

I'd seen Lawrence Lessig present before, so I already knew that he is one of the most engaging speakers around.  He is tremendously effective at using visuals to complement and enhance his talk -- it's light years away from the typical word-slide-with-a-couple-of-graphics presentations that most of us are bored to tears with.  His opening for the Free Culture Symposium did not disappoint.    Even if his content hadn't been spot on, creative, and stimulating, he would've been fun to watch and listen to.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, on the other hand, was a revelation because I had not ever seen him present.  Stylistically, he's the anti-Lessig.  LL's is rapid-fire, synchronized with images and words and sound and video -- it's a virtuoso performance, every element working together.  Siva had no video, no images, no visuals at all.  He came out with a handful of notes that he referred to occasionally, and just talked.  He was very funny, very informal, and made it very clear that he was trying these ideas out -- wasn't necessarily a hundred percent sure that he was on the right track, but he'd been thinking about this stuff a lot lately and wanted to talk about it here, to see what we thought.  It was a virtuoso performance too.

Lessig expanded on some of the themes laid out in his book, Free Culture.  It was a "big picture" presentation, examining how the "default" for use of creative works has shifted from "free" in the analog world, to "regulated" in the digital world, and how that has resulted in a bottling up of creative works that threatens to undermine much of our ability to continue to develop culture in important ways.  The bottom line is that current copyright law is no longer effective, and he ended with a plea to librarians to get involved in these issues -- if it's just lawyers and content producers talking about it, nothing, he says, is going to change.

Siva's was narrower in scope, focusing very particularly on the Google library project.  While he made it clear that he is a fan of Google and thinks it's a great company, there are a number of things about the Google library project that worry him.   He said,  "I think Google is one of the coolest things to come around in my lifetime -- but I think libraries are cooler."    He said, "My problem is not with Google, but with the five libraries."

In essence, and I hope I'm not distorting his position, he thinks the prospect of doing something like Google Library is fabulous, but he is distressed that it isn't librarians running the project.    Central to the problem is the fact that Google is a company, and ultimately it is its responsibility to the shareholders that will determine its actions.  Librarians, on the other hand, are supposed to be working for the public good.  He points out that Google has no commitment to privacy comparable to librarians' ethics -- he asks whether Google will be as devoted to preserving the privacy of the users of Google Library as librarians are to the people who make use of their collections.  There is a stability problem -- suppose at some point in the future, Google's shareholders decide that it's not a profitable endeavor, and so they shut it down?  And he worries about the potential unanticipated negative effects if Google wins its fair use argument -- might that not actually inspire the copyright holders to push, successfully, for much stronger copyright protections, leading to an erosion of the fair use privileges that we now have?  He spoke more passionately and fervently about the importance of librarians to these issues than many librarians do.  He was adamant:  "Google is not a library and never will be."

I'm sure this simply reveals what a complete intellectual property geek I am, but when, after he was done, the first hand that shot up to ask a question was Lessig's, and for the next several minutes, the two of them engaged in a discussion of tactics and possible outcomes, I was completely thrilled.  Kinda like watching Bob Dylan come out at the end of a Van Morrison concert to join Van for the encore.

There was much, much more to the Symposium  -- there was a Wikimedia guy there (Daniel Mayer) who gave a great presentation that showed he's got a much better grasp of the potential and limitations of Wikipedia than many of its librarian fans do; there was a contributed paper addressing the bottling up of government information that we're witnessing as so much moves to digital form; there was a superb wrap-up by Cliff Lynch where he focused on the important role of higher education institutions in taking a lead in dealing with these issues.

I learned some new things, shifted my thinking on a few others, maybe even changed my mind about a couple of things.  And then I went out into Atlanta and had a great dinner in a casual Italian restaurant and listened to a few hours of a wonderful jazz quintet at Churchill Grounds.  An excellent day all 'round.



Sounds like all you could hope for in a symposium, Scott.

I recently heard an interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan about the Google Print program. I was also struck by his greater grasp of its implications than is evident among many librarians. The same goes for Lessig's broader sweeps of the information universe.

Librarians should not confine themselves to merely negotiating the publishing system for our patrons. We should also take an active part in shaping that system, right now and in the future.

Mark D

I agree Marcus, it disturbs me that Google is taking such an active role in this venture. My fear; Google is just an internet word for Elsevier. My training in economics has taught me that centralization and monopoly mean power, power means control, and control means the rise of personal interest over public good.

Marcus, it isn't enough that the librarian community seeks to provide information universally. I see librarians make the same mistake over and over again when it comes to electronic access. There seems to be this desire to come up with the (or worse "a") solution for electronic searching and access. It isn't good enough that there be a private or a public domain. Whether it is Google or a consortia of public libraries that develop "a" electronic library is not the issue. It is the "a" that is the issue.

I don't want "a" solution publicly or privately based. I want many solutions, some public some private some open some closed. It is only in diversity that the public interest is protected.

Ultimately, whether it is Google or Harvard or a consortia of libraries controlling "the" access the incorporation status of "the" deliverer is mute. The only way to insure the common good is to insure diversity of access and systems. An electronic Library of Alexandria is not a dream it is a nightmare, because whoever controlled it would have a frightening level of power and control over knowledge.


Mark D from Down Under,

Librarians--including myself--definitely need to consider the unintended consequences of our push for "the" solution to information dissemination in the electronic age. I agree completely.

I still support the goals and principles of open access, but not with any righteousness. As with any political movement, OA advocacy demands a dogged refusal to see more than one side of the story. That's not a trait I wish to develop.

Keep in mind that everyone who develops strong convictions is apt to ignore or minimize contradictory information. This is a human weakness, not a librarian's unique failing.

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Hey, thanks for all this. You nailed my position exactly. You did better than I did, in fact.

Hope we can meet again soon.


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