As a dilettantish historian, I find Google Books invaluable, especially for 19th century sources. With the chorus of negativity surrounding the GBS Settlement debate, it’s been hard to find anyone saying what seems obvious to me – Whether you like it or not, it’s apparent from the comments below that GBS is revolutionizing historical research. So it was good to come across a recent discussion to this effect among historians on a rather obscure academic listserv (SHARP-L: The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing). This is especially interesting because it centers around commentary by Geoff Nunberg in August on GBS metadata as a “train wreck,” which I discussed in articles here. The postings below on the GBS thread are in chronological order. I’ve included excerpts from most of the posts, including representations of all points of view. Most of the postings are in the November archive (thread title: do you use Google Books?). Thanks to @cpwillett for bringing this to my attention.

Beth Luey, Arizona State University

[An earlier] post called to mind a number of recent attacks on Google. I have become addicted to Google Books, which has not only given me access to books that would be hard to find … but has allowed me to find people and passages in books where I would not have known to look. … I’d be interested to know whether other SHARPists find Google Books useful.

Mark Samuels Lasner, University of Delaware

I find Google Books useful for finding truly obscure references but have learned not to trust either the bibliographical information given in the listings or the integrity of the scanned books themselves.

Patrick Leary, Northwestern University

(boldface added here and below) Beth calls attention to a phenomenon that I’ve noticed lately, too: articles sneering at Google Book Search, despite the fact that every serious researcher I know, including myself, now uses it routinely to accomplish certain tasks that would otherwise be very difficult or even impossible to do.

The article by Geoffrey Nunberg in the August 31 Chronicle of Higher Education, is typical.  That article, which has been widely cited, is entitled, “Google’s Book Search: A Disaster forScholars.”  That characterization is flatly ridiculous, and utterly irresponsible. …. The plain fact is that Google Book Search is *not* by any measure a “disaster for scholars”; to the contrary, it is one of the most useful tools that scholars (and other researchers, of all kinds) around the world have ever had available to them, and unlike the many subscription full-text databases, it is available for free to anyone who can muster an Internet connection. … We absolutely do not need are any more sneering dismissals of the entire enterprise.

Elizabeth Horan, Arizona State University

Many books printed in Spanish, esp. Latin America, even important books, were printed without indexes in order to save on production costs. Google Books isn’t fail-safe but it’s better than sitting and skimming huge swathes of text, especially for finding name references.

Zachary Lesser, University of Pennsylvania. These comments suggest what I’ve discussed in previous articles.

The Nunberg article might as well have been called, “Libraries: A Disaster for Scholars.” After all, I’m sure we could all relate anecdotes about how a book was mis-shelved, lost in the stacks for years, catalogued under an inappropriate subject header, etc. For that matter, one might write an amusing article entitled, “Printed Books: A Disaster for Scholars,” with funny examples of typos.

Richard Fine, Virginia Commonwealth University

I agree with Patrick and others.  Google Books is a useful tool and promises to be even more useful in the future.  I think it is especially so for my colleagues working in 19th century (and earlier) materials, and those in the public domain.  That said, I’ve been fishing around for texts from the 1940s and have found several of relevance to a current project through Google Books that I could not locate elsewhere.  Like any tool, it is imperfect and can’t do everything, … Nunberg was way off base, as Zachary Lesser indicated.

Eleanor Shevlin, West Chester (Pennsylvania) University

I just want to quickly second Patrick’s remarks–especially about the value of GBS (despite its flaws, errors, etc.–one needs to be an aware user).  I find GBS indispensable as a finding aid for a host of purposes.

Paul Duguid, University of California, Berkeley

I would indeed almost go as far as to say that to criticise Nunberg through the subtitle without addressing his interests and issues directly comes close to being “flatly ridiculous and utterly irresponsible”.  (Full disclosure here, I am a friend and co-teacher with Nunberg, while Patrick and I have crossed swords before about Google and its critics and he regards me, as he seems to Nunberg, as suffering from “scholarly fastidiousness” for finding fault with Google.) …. Looking beyond the headline, note that Nunberg is well aware of what Google is good at …. So in no way is his piece a “sneering dismissal of the entire enterprise”.

Lisa Berglund, Buffalo State College, SUNY

I use Google Books a LOT, especially for my courses. I can assign chapters and sections of books … Google Books frequently helps me answer quickly and easily questions that would  have been difficult to research with only Buffalo State’s limited college library … Yes, it has its limitations and yes, it can be frustrating but it has made my job so much easier, and enlivened my research so dramatically, that my occasional whining is lost in an almost daily rush of relief and gratification.

Daniel Allington, The Open University

Paul Duguid writes that “we need GBS to take metadata far more seriously so that the collection can be examined as an unrivalled and reliable corpus and not simply a bunch of scanned books”. This is, I think, the heart of the issue. As a “bunch of scanned books”, Google Books is very useful indeed. But it could be so much more than that, and it’s the problems that would have been easiest to avoid that are in many ways the most frustrating.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

10 thoughts on “Historians on Google Books: “Indispensable … Enlivening”

  1. I have to smile about your characterization of the SHARP-L being “a rather obscure academic listserv”–and in some ways I suppose we are. Yet SHARP-L does have about 2,000 plus subscribers, while the actual dues-paying organization with which it is connected, Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (, has about 1,100 members from around the world. Its membership is drawn from a variety of disciplines–many literary scholars as well as historians, linguists, sociologists, and scholars in art history, media studies, library and information sciences, and more.

    In other words, many academics (and not just historians) find Google Books to be an amazing tool. The settlement has been so unsettling to some because of worry about control of material (personally, I do not care for the thought of having a limited number of computer terminals in public or academic libraries for Google Book Search [GBS]). Many scholars, especially those working on textual corpora, bemoan what GBS does not offer in terms of metadata (as you saw with Paul Duguid’s comments). In terms of the settlement, some textual corpora scholars are especially concerned about access and control over the data they gather. Others whose work focuses on text mining and machine reading, however, are pleased that Google has at least taken the initiative. While I am in literature, much of my work is quite historical, and GBS has afforded significant new leads as well as hard evidence that I would have almost certainly not found without this new tool. Hardly a day goes by that I do not use GBS.

    On Early Modern Online Bibliography (, a blog I coauthor with Anna Battigelli, we have had several posts on Google, including ones on the settlement. Our discussions can be more far-ranging than the blog’s title might suggest.
    I have been slowly expanding a talk on GBS for an article, but it is not yet complete. Here are two pieces by others that may interest readers:
    Patrick Leary’s “Googling the Victorians” (
    Dan Cohen’s “Is Google Good for History” (

  2. Pingback: Seeing the picture » Blog Archive » Google, History & Twitter at AHA San Diego (#AHA2010)

  3. Eleanor, Thanks. Your blog does indeed have good posts on Google Book Search. I’ll keep an eye on it.

    Thanks for the balancing comments on GBS, making it clear that academics on SHARP-L see negatives as well as positives about it.

    Sorry for my description of SHARP-L as “rather obscure” — I guess I thought of that because (I was surprised to learn) the discussions are not easily available online. I was also surprised to learn that the people I quoted in the article have little presence on Twitter — It’s become an excellent place to discuss the GBS settlement. Because there WAS such good Twitter coverage of Dan Cohen’s talk at AHA, I’ve done a post that has all of the AHA/Google tweets.

  4. Thanks, Eric. Just as a follow-up, many SHARP members do use Twitter, but a number don’t. We’re a diverse group. Moreover, not all SHARP-L posters are members of SHARP–and some SHARP members tweet and don’t post!

    No offense taken with the “obscure” characterization… SHARP discussions are actually easily available online through the SHARP-archives, but the particular exchange that you note did have mention of some off-line discussions, which I can understand could be confusing. Yet private conversations can happen anywhere–and they don’t always make their way to posts.

    Many thanks for the compilation of the AHA/Google Tweets…

  5. Hi, Eric.

    I don’t know how you found the original post (or I forgot), but I assumed you found–or the SHARP-L archives (from the link on the SHARP website). Evidently, you didn’t, so I definitely see why you used the word “obscure”!

    One subscribes to the listserv and receives the emailed discussions and can post. When I searched SHARP-L on Google, the following comes up:

    SHARP: SHARP-L Discussion Listserv
    The SHARP-L archives contain every message posted to SHARP’s discussion list from its beginnings in March of 1992 to the present. Containing as they do the … -

    I believe anyone can search the SHARP-L archives–even non-subscribers.

  6. I don’t remember exactly how I found the SHARP-L discussion — Someone mentioned it on Twitter, but didn’t have a link to it, so I had to do a bit of digging as I remember. … Yes, I guess that’s why I said “obscure” — And why I thought it was important to share the good discussion of Google Books — SHARP-L people are saying valuable things that the world should hear!

  7. Google Books has been great to track down obscure hard to find references but I think the bibliographical information can be inaccurate

  8. Thanks, Eric. Because I have been a member of SHARP since its early days and am on SHARP-l, I didn’t realize at all how hard it would be to find just doing a normal Google search. And thanks for the plug about our Google discussions. Anyone can join the listserv–and as I noted above the archives are searchable.

    And, Kris, there are definite problems with the bibliographic records (often some real howlers), but I see many more uses for it. As long as one is aware of its shortcomings, one can work around the bibliographic problems.

    Some may be interested in Charles Bailey’s Version 5 of the Google Book Search Bibliography available from Digital Scholarship:
    “This bibliography presents selected English-language articles and other works that are useful in understanding Google Book Search. It primarily focuses on the evolution of Google Book Search and the legal, library, and social issues associated with it. Where possible, links are provided to works that are freely available on the Internet, including e-prints in disciplinary archives and institutional

  9. Eleanor, Thanks for the comments and the link. … I just want to encourage you and other digital researchers to keep talking about Google Book Search — Your perspective is especially valuable because you USE Google Books. I get the sense that many people who have consistently negative opinions of it don’t have experience with it.

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