Ben Bunnell - Future of Librarians Interview

Ben Bunnell is the Manager of Library Partnerships for Google Book Search, but for readers who may not know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Sure, I have an MLS from the University of Michigan, as well as an MBA. I took a non-traditional route with my library degree, working for two years as a business research librarian at a venture capital firm before ending up at Google. I've worked on the Book Search project for three years now in an operational capacity; I work with libraries to help get them started with the project and make sure that our partnerships are productive and our operations run smoothly.

Let's pretend for a minute that you weren't involved in the world's biggest book digitization effort. How do you personally use the library? How do you search for and access information in general? How do you read books?

I have two small children and very little free time, so the way I use the library has changed over the years. In days past, I used the library as a place to spend an afternoon, usually avoiding the computers and just browsing the books. Nowadays, I take my kids to the nearby public library on weekends for story hour, book fairs, and other child-related activities. I generally search for information online. I typically start with Google (no surprise, I bet) and go from there. Most of the information I look for is work-related and pretty readily findable online. As for reading, when I have time, I tend to read thousand-page plus novels that take me three months to finish in one or two-page intervals.

What is Google Book Search's role in the future of libraries?

We hope that Google Book Search will become a valuable tool in libraries, and the stories we're hearing from librarians are promising. We've seen GBS used regularly in two ways in libraries: one, librarians help patrons by virtue of being able to access books that aren't held in their collection, without having to go through the delay of Interlibrary Loan, and two, full-text search of the books makes a library's existing collection more valuable because it's much, much easier to find a topic buried in a book that's not immediately obvious from a search of the OPAC.

How is GBS changing physical library spaces?

Well, in a sense it allows a library with a small collection to take advantage of much larger collections without needing to devote extra physical space to the books themselves. I think that in general libraries are becoming more digital - by that I mean that electronic resources and tools are as ensconced in a library as any other traditional form of research or reference. But it's very difficult for us to predict these things.

GBS has partnered with over 10,000 publishers and about a dozen major libraries. What is the most interesting difference between your partnerships with publishers, and those with libraries?

The stewardship of the physical books is quite different. Both groups are interested in having the contents of books made digital and searchable, but where publishers are usually very happy to send us a copy of a book without expecting to get it back, libraries are understandably very different. Operationally, our work to digitize libraries is much more involved. We use custom-designed non-destructive scanning technology developed specifically with library collections in mind, and we work at very large volumes with our library partners in order to digitize their collections in a reasonable period of time.

Also, the way we display the books from libraries differs from the ones we get from publishers. Library books in the public domain are 100% viewable from cover to cover. For books whose copyright status is indeterminate, we only show bibliographic information about a book and at most a few lines of text for a given search. Books we get from publishers and other copyright holders usually fall somewhere in between. We work with publishers and copyright holders to provide a limited preview of their books, with at least 20% of the pages available for viewing (or as much as the copyright holder allows).

The definition of "library" is somewhat ambiguous, not less so with technology being integrated so fundamentally into the organization of information. That said, could you comment on whether or not GBS itself could be considered a "library"?

I think that if you limit the definition of "library" to "a collection of books" then GBS could be considered a library of sorts. However, that's not how we at Google look at libraries or how we think society in general looks at libraries. Libraries have become centers of our community, and librarians have become stewards of information. GBS is just a tool for libraries and librarians.

Thank you Ben for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! To learn more about the project, check out the Google Book Search blog.

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