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