I just tried requesting the The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report through my local public library (ironically, the report is not available at any of the Stanford Libraries). All I got was a message that said: “Sorry, no copies available to request.”
I poked around (‘cuz that’s what librarians do) and figured out that they have a cooperative agreement with only one of the four owning libraries, and the copy of the report in that library is checked out and not due until February 10, 2010. I don’t get any options to put a hold on it, only a message that says “Sorry, no copies available for request”. To most people I know, that pretty much means the report is not available.
Why request a copy of the Stanford-Lockheed flood report? Because Google said it wasn’t available.
In an op-ed piece about Google Books in the New York Times, Sergey Brin claimed that “the vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries.” In support of that argument, he noted that The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report is no longer available.
It didn’t take long for the library community to cry foul–noting that WorldCat shows that four (yep–four whole copies) of the report are available. To many in the library community, Brin’s lie/laziness/shoddy research (pick your favorite) rendered the entire op-ed and his entire argument false.
Lorcan Dempsey offers a slightly more nuanced approach, noting that “on a closed mailing list in which I participate, one commenter argued that this level of availability meant that the volume was actually not available in any ‘practical sense’.” Dempsey himself concedes that “Certainly, if the report were available through Google Books (or some other network level repository of digital books), its availability would be greatly amplified.”
Dempsey talks about “grades of availability”, but in the end, he still insists on setting the record straight:
That said, it seemed to me (as it did to the librarians on the web4lib discussion list) that saying that this volume was no longer available was a stronger statement than the situation warranted. I could go with ‘not easily available’, but ‘no longer available’ was too much …
And as I sat there looking at something being called a muskrat, I wanted to say, no, it is a beaver …. ;-)
The truth is, no matter how much work we put into exposing our collections, and making InterLibrary Borrowing procedures more seamless, an item that is available in only 4 libraries is not available in any meaningful sense of the word to the vast majority of people.
Would it have been more accurate for Brin parse his claim as Dempsey suggests? Sure. Would it have been more effective if Brin had asked a reference librarian to find him an example of an item that was absolutely unavailable (i.e. no circulating copies available anywhere)? You bet. Is it sad to me that the library community has latched on to this detail at the cost of seeing the bigger truth that digitizing books and making them available online dramatically increases availability? Very, very sad.
When librarians tell other librarians “Oh look—the Stanford-Lockheed report is actually available in 4 libraries, so Google is wrong!”, we pat each other on the back and feel vindicated. When we say stuff like that to someone who gets a message “Sorry, no copies available to request.”, they’re going to look at us like we just don’t get it. Because we don’t.