Libraries vs. Bookstores vs. Google

Library Juice posts a wonderful essay by Tracy Nectoux, a library student at UIUC, who was assigned to visit a bookstore and compare the atmosphere to a library’s atmosphere. I think it’s helpful to take the comparison one step further and include Google Book Search, along with patron privacy in the mix. Here’s a summary of some of Nectoux’s comparisons, with Google Book Search and privacy concerns added in by me (yellow background):





Public libraries are set up so that anyone who wants to can give himself or herself a free university education.

The purpose of bookstores is to make profit by selling books, CDs, DVDs, coffee, etc.

The purpose of Google Book Search is to provide access to books, while also making a profit by placing contextual ads.


Libraries are public institutions.

Bookstores are private institutions.

Google is a publicly-traded corporation whose first duty is to the shareholders.


Foremost in the American Library Association’s mission, priority areas, and goals are intellectual freedom, access to all, and public awareness.

Bookstores are businesses whose bottom line is profit. First Amendment freedoms, civil rights issues, equal access to all, etc. are just not going to be at the top of their yearly accounting financial quotas.

Same as Bookstores.

Patron Privacy

Patrons can use the public library anonymously. Public libraries are also bound by the ALA’s Code of Ethics to protect patron privacy. The ALA has stood up to government surveillance in both the McCarthy and Cold War eras, and is the only major public organization that is at the forefront of fighting the USA PATRIOT Act.

Bookstores regularly collect customers’ personal and transactional data through their “membership” or “frequent shopper” programs. Such information is often shared with third parties.

Google relies on Web cookies to track and aggregate user’s search activity, including book searches. A Google Account is required to access full text of many books.

In the dissertation, I discuss in more detail how the growing shift in information-seeking activities from public libraries (as well as bookstores) to Google represents a potentially significant shift in existing informational norms regarding the collection and flow of personal information. More to come…


  1. I’ll be interested in seeing what you find about libraries, as I just blogged about some new policies being implemented on a local level that seem to weaken privacy protections in public libraries.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Not only do libraries have the ALA ethics code, patron privacy is protected by statute or by attorney general opinion in all 50 states.


  3. Hi Chris – excellent point. Norms of freedom of inquiry within libraries have (thankfully) been encoded into law.

    DIssent – I’ll check that story. Thanks.

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