12 August 2010

In Defense of Google Books

Martin Hollick over at Slovak Yankee had a post recently expressing his frustration with Google Books, which had me thinking about the nature of Google Books and what it can and can't do for us as researchers. I am, after all, one of those blogging internet genealogists who raves about Google Books. That doesn't mean, however, that I am unaware of its limitations; merely that I find its benefits outweigh its deficiencies, making it a useful site despite the shortcomings.

Complicated Searching

Martin's complaint, as I read it, was twofold: 1) A public domain work which he was searching for was not available on Google Books, and 2) Navigation within Google Books is unnecessarily opaque.

On point two, I believe Martin is undoubtedly correct. It is a run around chore to find out what, exactly, Google Books has online in what sort of view (full, snippet, partial, no), in which edition, and which volume. I wonder at times why Google has invested the time, money and effort of their own company (as well as that of libraries around the world) to create this resource, which is then handicapped by a sub-par search interface and a complete lack of taxonomical organization. Even using Google Books' Advanced Search to cut through the clicks, it recently took me almost two hours to wade through search results and editions information to compile a list of Hubert Howe Bancroft's works that are available on the site.

In an echo of Martin's experience, I was frustrated to find that of the thirty-nine volumes of Bancroft's collected works, three of the ones I am most interested in are (yet?) to be released in full-view, despite the fact that they are in the public domain. It also leaves what could be a valuable reference resource (a full volume-set of Bancroft's works) full of holes. This, of course, leads to questions: Why should some volumes of Bancroft's collected works not be available, when other volumes of the work (all in the same edition) are presented not once, not twice, but three times under different ID numbers, and therefore as separate results in a given search? Where is the redundancy control? Is anyone anywhere within the digitization effort trying to ensure that complete sets of works get digitized? What is the system for prioritizing the volumes to be digitized, and if, as I assume, it resides with the libraries, is there any centralization to ensure that duplication is not taking up valuable digitization resources?

It is this--the sometimes chaotic and seemingly untamed sprawl of Google Books--which renders it vast but wild, and sometimes frustrating to use. On these points, Martin's criticisms seem, to me, appropriate.

Better Use

Of course, with such a plethora of information, it is easy to expect Google Books to have everything, especially what we are looking for, whenever we want it. The thrust and thrill of research demands optimism that what we set out to find will yield in the end. Yet experience shows that even as digitization efforts continue, Google Books isn't always the best choice when our research directs us to a particular work (or even a particular edition of a particular work), since it is not yet the broad clearinghouse of human publishing history that it aims to be. Often, as Martin invokes, a visit to a flesh and blood library is mandated.

To assume that Google Books replaces a library is as incorrect as assuming that Google Books has set out to BE a library in the first place. The ends and means--and even usage--of Google Books can be completely different than that of a library, as the cascade of interactions with both entities, though beginning in the same place (the need for information), succeed in different ways and toward different satisfactory endings. Google Book's strength lies not in emulating a library, but in altering the interaction with information that is found in books.

In a library: What I require is a way to find the volume I need, have it sent via ILL to my local branch (if necessary), then check it out and read it. The library's purpose is to either house the volume or provide a conduit of service which will allow me to access another institution's copy. They have to provide a searchable interface for their own collection that allows me to find what they have available. And they provide the invaluable service of librarians who can augment my research with suggestions for other resources. Beyond that, my interaction with the information I need, in the book I want, is a straight-forward one, wherein the search leads to a nose-in-book ending.

On Google Books: The mode of interaction here can replicate that of a library, if I locate the volume I want, then download it and read it on my Kindle, (which is one way I use Google Books). In this way, the site has served dually as a library by housing the volume and providing a (perhaps poorly organized) catalog, and is little more than digital delivery service.

The difference--and the strength--of Google Books is that it allows interaction beyond this traditional library > catalog > user triptych by presenting the information within books in a more multi-dimensional way. In this sense, Google Books serves not as an electronic bookshelf, but as a true spinoff of its greater search cousin: a database of published information that breaks out of the traditional bindings of books.

Fruits of the Search

In my search for Volume VI of Bancroft's History of California, Google Books fell short. All I wanted, in this case, was to have the complete volume to read. In other situations, where my search is more general, I have found the ability to search "outside of the binding" to be invaluable, in that it allows me to find information in places I almost never would have thought to look, or in books which I would have had myriad problems obtaining. (This holds true particularly for 19th-century research, for which Google Books holds a wealth of public domain works). Examples of items I have found include:

* A beautiful illustrated advertisement for a GGG-Grandfather's architectural offices, found in a Catholic Laity Almanac.

* Information on a letter written by the same GGG-Grandfather which was at the root of a Supreme Court case in 1858; this was in a rather arcane publication about the railroad involved in the suit.

* A letter written by a G-Grandfather about his son's WWI service in France was read aloud at a Congressional hearing in 1923. Google Books had a snippet view result showing his name and residence, which allowed me to order the book through ILL and obtain the full testimony read before the committee.

* Various South Carolina governmental reports, as well as post-Civil War shipping industry publications have allowed me to piece together a list of vessels captained by a GGG-Grandfather.


Certainly I could have found many of these books independently of the internet, if I had wandered into a repository which housed them, thought of pulling them off the shelf, then sat down and paged through them, page after page after page. Realistically, though, most of these items were nuggets residing silently within the pages of books I never would have dreamed of touching or books which are in places I may never be lucky enough to go. The digital database that is Google Books makes discoveries like this possible, enhancing my research and my understanding of the individuals I am pursuing.


Jeannie said...

I love Google Books! I would love if my local genealogy library would have an every name index for each book that they house.

While I think there are improvements that need to be made to Google Books, that is essentially what they are- a name index to book for which they have access. I still have to drive down to the library to request the book, but at least I know what book to request. No more needle in a haystack!

No doubt it takes a considerable amount of time getting the info. online. At this time, I believe there are roughly 20 libraries involved with the Google Books Library Project. As this number increases, so will the amount of material available to us.

P.S. I find putting search phrases in quotes to be very helpful in narrowing down the results. :D

Martin said...

Good posting. You see the cup half full and I always see it half empty. However, I have to say that I could have found all your examples in print resources 15 years ago. You've just been going to the wrong librarians. I know people have done genealogical presentations on how to search CIS (Congressional Information Service). Few people know there are public laws AND private laws. I've used private laws several times, most notably in my treatment of Hopley Yeaton.

Jennifer said...

Thanks, Jeannie!

@Martin: Indeed, I believe that Google Books doesn't necessarily present us anything NEW, just makes access easier.