Can Google Books Serve Scholars Better…?

YES!! Of course. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed identifies some of the key problems the current search model of Google Books poses for scholars. (Since it’s a Chronicle article, it’ll probably be moved behind their wall in a few days.) Geoffrey Nunberg points to the real mess that Google has made of metadata for the scanned works.

I love Google Books– Yes, there are real and important legal questions about access, copyright, the danger of monopoly, and the like. No, Google is not engaged in scanning the world’s cumulative knowledge for altruistic reasons, but rather to enhance their algorithmic access to the accumulated information beyond, or rather before the information age.

That said, I am always astounded by what has already been scanned. I have access to a huge collection of early modern and nineteenth century Spanish and Spanish-language books through Google in digitized form that would have been impossible short of years of access to scattered library collections here and abroad. It is rapidly becoming integral to my research process.

I will agree with Nunberg that the efficacy of Google’s search methods can be very frustrating to scholar’s used to tightly organized collections. I miss the capacity to look at the books to the left and right and above and below on library shelves. (Though, one should note that there are many libraries throughout the world that do give patrons access to the stacks.) Google has made complete mess of the the metadata– something that demonstrates the current limitations of more semantic types of searches.

In that sense, working in Google Books right now almost has a hint of the frustrating but ultimately rewarding process of working in archives that aren’t very well indexed. At least that’s how it feels to me. As I have written about here, sometimes the discoveries are very interesting stepping off points.

(Cross posted at history510.)


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Digital History, Research and Writing

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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