Oh, the Acrimony

Y’know, in some ways, it’s terrible trying to write a term paper about something that’s actively under conversation. People keep saying things! And then I have to read them! And then my already-too-long notes document expands even further!

However, there’s been some intense acrimony flying back and forth in the last few days that couldn’t help but grab my attention. First, Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG (the Research Libraries Group, for those not quite as library-nerdy as me), whose newsletter, Cites & Insights, I cited heavily in a paper about Orphan films last semester, has come out with a new issue in which he discusses Google Book Search and the Open Content Alliance (with which RLG is heavily involved).

In that piece of commentary, he levels some pretty harsh criticisms at Siva Vaidhyanathan’s take on the project, which this blog’s three regular readers will recognize as an issue about which I once boiled over on this blog. At the time that I put up that post, Siva was actually pretty cordial in responding to it; maybe because I’m a newbie in the field or something, I don’t know.

However, in Crawford’s case, Siva got pretty harshly defensive. In the very first line, he calls Mr. Crawford “Some dude named Walt,” which, though perhaps rhetorically effective as a way of undercutting Crawford’s legitimacy as a commentator, doesn’t seem very polite—or very professional—when you consider Crawford’s actual credentials. Indeed, Crawford himself sniped back about that aspect of Siva’s post, in the midst of issuing an apology for some of his own prior snippiness.

It’s fascinating to me how this issue can get otherwise rational people’s blood to boil, to the point where they’re essentially resorting to namecalling and trash-talking. [Note: I make no claim that I have not played a part in such childishness; I undeniably have.] I mean, these are all interesting and intelligent people, with interesting and intelligent things to say; they (or perhaps, we?) just don’t seem to want to really listen to one another. Instead, it seems like people are carving trenches, out of personal defensiveness and, I would submit, in some cases out of a lack of interest in really engaging with the issues being broached by the other side.

For example: I wonder if Siva has ever made contact with the librarians here at Michigan, whom he takes such glee in trashing all over the internet. I sat down with John Wilkin for an hour or so last week to hash out some issues for my term paper, and after talking to him, I cannot imagine asserting, as Siva does, that he doesn’t “care…about the values that libraries are supposed to uphold” (or at least, not as much as Siva himself claims to).

Can this go back to being a thoughtful conversation, rather than an elementary school food-fight? I wonder.


4 thoughts on “Oh, the Acrimony

  1. I think in general it is a thoughtful conversation. Maybe that’s why I reacted to Dr. Vaidhyanathan’s absolute statements the way I did: Because, outside of publishers’ repetitive misleading statements, it seemed so out of character for what’s pretty clearly an issue fraught with grays and short on black-and-white.

    By the way, it’s the Research Libraries Group–and the inability to get that second word right may be one reason why it’s now always called RLG except on contracts and copyright statements.

    And I should probably stress, as I do in C&I, that RLG is not in any way responsible for any of the content in C&I. It’s done on my own time.

  2. Thanks, I fixed the typo — my bad. I went through several pages of the RLG website without finding a satisfactory acronym definition…I guess that’s what I get for not really doing my homework. 🙂

  3. Thanks. You are right on. Walt got my angry by comparing me with a corrupt person who is destroying our country and world. I took that as a swipe at my integrity.In general, debate about Google and its Book Search/Library program has been high-level and polite. I have reacted strongly to two posts out of hundreds. Those happened to be from people who do not know me and questioned my position within, knowledge of, and commitment to libraries. I probably should have just let those things slide. But I care very deeply about my reputation among librarians and my passion about library values and the institutions themselves. I get very worked up when people question either — especially when those people don’t know me.Let me be clear. Many of my best friends and allies disagree with me some or all the issues concering the Google thing: Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig, Fred von Lohman, Jessica Litman, Michael Madison, etc. Nothing about our disagreements and debates have ruptured my relationships with them. And yes, I have had discussions with Michigan folks about the Google project: librarians, university lawyers, and faculty members. My first public address on the subject was with your former provost. I have found that at Michigan — like everywhere — there is no unanimity of opinion about Google. Most people consider it an experiment and many (if not most) consider it an essential experiment. I take no glee in criticizing anyone. It saddens me that Michigan undertood this effort and sprung it on the library community (and the Michigan community) without public deliberation or debate. That’s what happens when state employees and librarians swear themselves to secrecy. They betray democratic values. There should have been a big debate on this BEFORE Michigan signed the contract and invited Google in. Back then we could have ensured Google was bound to respect basic library values. Now it’s too late. Now it’s all about taking sides between Google and publishers. That’s a shame. It is all about the grey areas. And that’s what I have been promoting.I have been blunt in my criticisms of both the five libraries who have entered these deals with Google and of Google itself because I can’t seem to get people to take the externalities of the program seriously. I want to enrich and broaden the discussion beyond these shallow mythologies:• Google is really good at what it does and is working for us.• A search engine is a neutral, democratic technology.• Publishers are big, bad copyright bullies who “don’t get” the Internet.• The Google Library project will (in Lessig’s terms) “offer universal access” to the bulk of human achievement and knowledge.• Fair use is straightforward, predictable, fair, and useful.• Expediency matters more than quality.All these statements are partially true but mostly false. And they are hardly the whole story here. So I think it would be very helpful if those who support Google’s project to pressure the company to be a better citizen rather than simply applauding. Let’s make sure Google at least tries to live up to its mottos.And, at risk of seeming absolutist, I repeat my prediction: Google will lose this case and lose it badly. Fair use in New York is not fair use in California. It’s a different circuit. We don’t live under one set of laws and one Constitution in this country. Will anyone who thinks that Google’s project falls under fair use please explain how the copy that goes back to Michigan is legal? Please. Any precedent? Any exception to Sec. 106? Anyone?

  4. Pingback: Eesh. « Elisabeth Jones

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