Monday, 7 September 2009

Google Books, a Disaster for Scholars?

On Friday Beatrice Fink posted a link to a 31 August news item from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Geoffrey Nunberg titled "Google's Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars" (2009) with the comment "To laugh or to cry, that is the confusion!" (here) Actually, to scream seems more appropriate.

After forwarding it to a colleague and fuming about it for a few hours, I decided to reply. I did this on the 18C-List, rather than on the The Chronicle of Higher Education for two reasons, [1] I try to avoid supporting any organisation that calls itself The [anything] (as if The Chronicle of Higher Education could speak to, or for, Higher Education everywhere on the planet) and [2] I figured that I would get a more interesting discussion on the 18C-List than in the feedback on the article itself. Although a few people wrote in to support my comments, it turns out I was wrong about no. 2.

So, for the record, what I wrote was:

Even though I have repeatedly pointed out the failings of ECCO, Google Books, etc, in a series of articles and papers, I think it is a bit rich to described Google Books as a "Disaster for Scholars." It is no such thing, it is one of the greatest developments in the history of scholarship: I'd place the printing press first, and email a close third.

I spent ten years working on Eliza Haywood, systematically trawling two centuries of scholarship, and the Rare Books collections of three continents. I thought I had been everywhere and seen everything. But five minutes on Google Books peeled my eyelids back. I still mourn the time I lost—not having Google Books earlier.

And the research I have done since simply could not have been undertaken without Google Books. Yes, it has failings, yes, the OCR is dodgy, the dating is dodgy, and it can be very frustrating knowing a reference appears in a work without being able to pin it down to a page, or even a volume, as has been rehearsed on this list many times over. But most of the criticisms carry very little weight for me, because they are easy to work round, or will inevitably be fixed.

No self-respecting scholar should accept a date of 1899 or 1999, or any other date for that matter, for Raymond Williams's Culture and Society (as the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education mentions). We teach our students how to cite a book, what details to use and where to find them. If we want to know the details of an edition we are quoting from Google Books, then we simply have only to scroll up to the imprint page and read it, which is exactly what we do every time we cite a book, regardless of how plausible the catalogue date is.

So, even if a subscription cost as much as that for ECCO, or EEBO, or the Burney Newspaper archive, I'd lobby my University to subscribe. But, instead, is free, fast, and vast.

Yes, Google have a market-leading position, but to grudge them that, given what they have invested and what they offer, seems pretty feeble; and to claim that Google will never have any competition is just ridiculous. Every market leader faces competition, eventually.

There really seems very little grounds for this sort of catastrophising.


It occurred to me after I posted this that I should have asked how many Edison light bulbs Geoffrey Nunberg happens to use, but the joke would probably have only amused me.

1 comment:

Doc-in-Boots said...

You eloquently summed up my feelings. I happily use Google Books. I check the scanned bibliographic details and recheck with library records etc (as I tell students - you need to double check your facts and not simply rely on the person who typed in data). It is a wonderful resource in terms of having a quick 'flick' through a book to see if it's one I should add to the list of library books I intend to borrow or if I need to check a reference. It makes research easier. Of course, as academics, we should keep an eye on how Google goes about the task. But Google is not doing this as a service to academics. We should keep that in mind, too.