Google Ngrams is a fascinating visualization tool for studying word frequency over time in the 15 million books that are part of the Google Books project. The research that led to the creation of Ngrams was a cooperative effort between Google and Harvard University.

The little screenshot snippet below shows Ngrams in action, making it easy to see at a glance how cancer has come to predominate over infectious diseases in the 20th century. Other examples show similar trends in related diseases, medical specialty fields, and the practice of healthcare. Ngram viewer IS case sensitive and results vary quite a bit depending on capitalization, so play around with it …

Especially of historic interest:

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

Dan Cohen gave an excellent talk in a panel (Is Google Good for History) at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association that brought much attention in the media and in Twitter by people following the conference’s hash tag #AHA2010.

The main focus of Dan’s talk was Google Book Search — He gave a nicely balanced view, noting that it’s been a valuable new source for historians, but also discussing problems with it, especially what he sees as a lack of openness on the part of Google.

The discussion around Dan’s paper brought in many voices and opinions on Google Books — It was especially encouraging to see positive opinions on the usefulness of GBS by historians (about which I’ve blogged) — An opinion that gets little attention and respect on Twitter 😉

So, because I found this discussion so valuable, and because tweets stay in Twitter Search for only 10 days, I’m taking the unusual step of recording all of the tweets retrieved with this search: #aha2010 google, which follows below (The search was done on Jan 14):

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

My son, Brian Rumsey, studies History in Mississippi.This is an interest of mine also, so I read along with him on some of his books. We’ve been having a running discussion on the revival of narrative history writing, as discussed by Lawrence Stone, who relates it to the idea of “thick description.” More less unconsciously, I think, as this idea  has percolated in my mind, it has become “thick history” instead of “thick description.”

These ideas were bouncing around in my mind when I visited Brian recently at Mississippi State, where he studies, and especially when we got a kind invitation from a fellow grad student to share Thanksgiving dinner with his extended family. The gracious Southern hospitality we enjoyed there was the highlight of our trip, in many ways – Story-telling, food, and much more. Of course, I couldn’t resist making a connection — This is history at its thickest! The rich dimensions of a Southern family! This made me realize that my conception of “thick history” is much like family history — It’s history that takes in all “members of the family” — all dimensions, all of the context of the story. History that values the STORY, and follows it wherever it goes, without trying to fit it into an ideological framework.

As I continued to cogitate on the idea of “thick history,” of course, I turned to Google — Searching in Google Web and Google Books, I find that I’m certainly not the first one to coin the term — It’s been used especially in discussions of Keynesian economics, but also in religion and sociology.


So I poke around more, and explore the idea that “thick history” resonates with “family” — I don’t find much in Google Web search, but then I turn to GBS and — Bingo! — Searching GBS for thick history” family, I find just what I’ve been imagining — Number two is The Genetic Strand, with the passage “DNA measures thick history …” This book, by Edward Ball — is “the story of a writer’s investigation, using DNA science, into the tale of his family’s origins.” — with his Southern family being centered in Charleston, South Carolina.

No earth-shattering find, admittedly, but a neat little trick nonetheless — Using GBS to make a surprising connection between history and biology that would have been impossible without it. The sort of connection that I’m sure makes GBS invaluable for real historians, enabling them to see history in completely new ways.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

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-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

In his interesting book The Great Influenza (2004) on the 1918 Flu epidemic, John M. Barry begins by giving the background and context of 19th century medicine. He says that medicine during this time lagged behind other sciences, especially because doctors were slow to embrace the quantitative methods and tools that helped other sciences like chemistry and physics make great advances. For example — amazingly — although thermometers were invented 200 years earlier, it wasn’t until the 1820’s that they were first used by medical people to measure body temperature in Europe (The US was even slower to change, and thermometers were still rarely used in the Civil War.) In the 1840’s and 1850’s John Snow was the first to use numeric methods for populations of patients, in his pioneering epidemiologic study of cholera in England. As Barry makes these fascinating observations about 19th century medicine, he adds this footnote, lest we think we’ve completely escaped the innumerate medicine of the 1800’s:

The effort to correlate treatments and results has not yet triumphed. A “new” movement called “evidence-based medicine” [boldface added] has emerged recently, which continues to try to determine the best treatments and communicate them to physicians. No good physician today would discard the value of statistics, of evidence accumulated systematically in careful studies. But individual doctors, convinced either by anecdotal evidence from their own personal experience or by tradition, still criticize the use of statistics and probabilities to determine treatments and accept conclusions only reluctantly. Despite convincing studies, for example, it took years before cancer surgeons stopped doing radical mastectomies for all breast cancers.*

From my college training in History of Science & Medicine, I learned the subversive nature of the discipline — Subversive because it forces us to realize that sometimes we’re not as far beyond ancient methods and ideas as we think we are. How much is there in contemporary medicine that’s still a vestige of the relatively recent past that Barry describes?

*Radical mastectomies for breast cancers: The definitive study that disproved the value of this is here.

Eric Rumsey is on Twitter @ericrumseytemp