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Toward A Public-Private Human Knowledge Project

By Rob Mitchum // November 7, 2013

Many people are familiar with Google’s unofficial slogan, “Don’t Be Evil.” Fewer know the company’s official mission statement, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Working towards this ambitious goal has involved much more than just the search engine that initially made Google’s name, expanding into massive projects to digitize books, academic journals and other types of media. While many experts praised these projects as audacious and bold, Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the 2011 book The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry, plays the devil’s advocate, asking ” who asked you guys to do this?”

In the last chapter of Vaidhyanathan’s book, he proposed a similarly bold plan to connect people around the world with more information in a usable form, The Human Knowledge Project. The idea, he said in his talk at the Cultural Policy Center (a joint program of The Harris School and NORC), was meant to be “so thoroughly unrealizable” that he wouldn’t be held accountable for making it happen. But as the Chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, Vaidhyanathan is interested in similar efforts to gather and share the world’s knowledge – a sphere where Google is unquestionably the heaviest hitter so far.

To describe Google’s approach, Vaidhyanathan recapped the discussion that followed the 2004 announcement of their partnership with several university libraries to scan millions of books – and make them searchable and readable. Though what’s now known as Google Books limits readers to “snippet form” – brief excerpts from the scanned book – the project touched off a battle over copyright and fair use that continues to rage in courtrooms today. While many of Vaidhyanathan’s peers praised the effort for dramatically improving access to the world’s collective knowledge, he has been more skeptical, less for legal reasons than for concerns about Google’s stability and speed.

“You had the University of Michigan, Oxford University, Harvard and Stanford, essentially asking Google to be the custodian of so many centuries of knowledge and so many billions of dollars of investments,” Vaidhyanathan said. “So we’re talking about several hundred years of knowledge and experience that had been accumulated and they were asking a six-year-old company to manage access to them.”

Google’s emphasis on speed also concerns Vaidhyanathan, who showed a scan of a page from Google Books mostly obscured by the scanner’s finger. Google’s race to create a huge database as quickly as possible has meant sacrificing image quality and the accuracy of metadata for the source material.

“When it comes to managing, making available, and organizing this collection that took thousands of years to accumulate, we don’t need to do it in 5 or 10 years, so fast that we generate images like this,” he said.

The Human Knowledge Project is Vaidhyanathan’s alternative proposal to accomplish the same lofty goals but with higher quality control, stability and public participation. Drawing inspiration from the Human Genome Project, Vaidhyanathan envisions a public-private partnership of public and university libraries, schools, states, and international organizations working with private companies such as Google — just as the human genome was pursued in tandem by government-funded researchers and the private company Celera Genomics.

Such a project would have to have more specific values than “Don’t Be Evil,” he said, making the final product multilingual, networked and linked, multimedia, malleable, accessible, stable and preserved. Instead of replacing libraries, such a project would raise the profile of libraries as the best entry point to this vast network of knowledge, using librarians instead of algorithms to offer guidance…just as they currently do with printed materials.

One example of an organization working towards these goals is the Digital Public Library of America, which collects content from “hubs” such as the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library, and Harvard. The DPLA, Vaidhyanathan said, can be a portal for discovery, a platform to build upon, and a strong, public alternative to private, business-oriented efforts to gather the world’s knowledge.

“As Google’s search engine becomes more and more about shopping, it becomes less and less about learning and discovery,” Vaidhyanathan said. “That’s really good for Google, but it’s not necessarily good for the sorts of values and visions that libraries represent in our community.”

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