Monday, May 7, 2007

Problems (and promise?) with Google Books

Robert Townsend evaluates Google Books, and finds problems, in an essay Google Books: What’s Not to Like? on the American Historical Association Blog recently. He begins:
The Google Books project promises to open up a vast amount of older literature, but a closer look at the material on the site raises real worries about how well it can fulfill that promise and what its real objectives might be.
Over the past three months I spent a fair amount of time on the site as part of a research project on the early history of the profession, and from a researcher’s point of view I have to say the results were deeply disconcerting. Yes, the site offers up a number of hard-to-find works from the early 20th century with instant access to the text. And yes, for some books it offers a useful keyword search function for finding a reference that might not be in the index. But my experience suggests the project is falling far short of its central promise of exposing the literature of the world, and is instead piling mistake upon mistake with little evidence of basic quality control. The problems I encountered fit into three broad categories—the quality of the scans is decidedly mixed, the information about the books (the “metadata” in info-speak) is often erroneous, and the public domain is curiously restricted.

For the rest of this very helpful essay, click here. The comments at the end are also well informed and of interest.

For all of its difficulties, I must say that it is nice to be able to access a copy of Hurst, The Growth of American Law (1950), instantly at my kitchen table. Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) is in print and so is not readable on Google. But still, the search function can allow you explore what authors Beard discusses in the text. For example, I found a reference to Karl Marx, but "Adam Smith" turned up no results. If pursing a topic like this, I would need to scour the index and the text itself, but it is a nice research supplement to be able to do searches like this from anywhere my computer can access the web.