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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How Google Books is Changing Academic History

Google Book Search is a relatively recent phenomenon... six months ago, right? About six months ago I was pottering around there, finding a few illustrated nineteenth-century texts, a lot of contemporary books for sale, and not much of too much interest.

Six months turns out to be a long time in book land. In that period of time, Book Search has accomplished enough to transform the academic profession.

I was idly trying a search on "roads" to see what sort of a literature would turn up for the period of my dissertation research, 1740-1850. I didn't expect much. I've spent the last two years wandering through the Yale, Harvard, and California libraries, the British Library, Britain's National Archives, and the immense reserves of North American Inter Library Loan reading every book on London, pavement, or travel I could get my hands on.

Surprise. In a single idle search I just added twenty extra full-text books to my list.

Which are, by the way, full-text searchable --

-- and subject to word-count analysis --

-- and replete with full illustrations --

-- and instantly digestable into visuals for powerpoint presentations.

Hallelujah, GoogleBooks. And holy mackerel! Good work.

By now, the first half of the nineteenth century exists in a very complete form on Google Books. In the last six months, while academic history has meandered in its habituated paths of grinding research, the possibilities of scholarship have been utterly transformed.

To give just one example, this little puppy -- Henry Parnell's A Treatise on Roads (1833) -- one of the key texts for my dissertation exists on our campus in Berkeley's transport library, a quaint but understaffed, spare room
hidden on the third floor of the engineering building, far, far away from where historians ever go. It wasn't actually on the shelf when I got there, so it took some patient emailing with the transport library librarians before the book was found, returned to the correct place, held at the desk for me, to be picked up during the library hours specific to that particular institution (10am-4pm, M-Fr). Wild with enthusiasm at having at last obtained it, I held the volume prisoner at my desk in San Francisco for six straight months, unruffled by overdue notices, until at last the plaintive emails from the circulation desk were too much for me to bear. Research in my world is very often a personal matter of haggling for more time with the particular librarian in question. They're used to us, and I figure they need a good struggle to keep them alert. But thanks to Google Book Search, these days of scavenger-hunt and tug-of-war are drawing to an end.

Time for a professional dialogue about the new kinds of research these texts have opened up. For a very vast vista has erupted before us, and with it, a more serious set of comparative questions as a standard for social history, and new levels of rigor to be expected from the individual researcher. No longer can historians afford to stay in the empty, lonely world of the weary scholar, pouring of close readings of dialogue. Time for all those structural analysis skills to come back in full force. Quantitative and open databases of word-count and thematic analyses. Open databases of pictures, tagged by keywords and available for classroom use.

What this signals, by the way, is the opportunity for a new age of scholarship. Cultural and image analysis used to be painfully time-consuming, heavy lifting, involving rare kinds of access, full fellowships, immense travel, and long waits for delicate books. Comparison between different cultural sources was even harder, placing absurd demands on the cultural historian's personal memory and note-taking skills. Cultural historians, despite their many skills, stood second in depth of research on any particular topic to political historians, for whom one visit to a Parliamentary archive and one visit to a personal residence outfitted them with every last detail of historical change. Now all that is changing. Comparing a hundred images is no longer a problem for a year's labor in an out-of-the-way museum reading room. Comparing a hundred personal accounts from working men is no longer a task to eat up a social historian's entire year.

I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds. Any reports of historians currently putting together databases? Please post them here. In the meantime, check out this afternoon's dissertation links...

  1. Practical Remarks, and Precedents of... - Google Book Search

    legal commentary on new pavement and turnpike legislation in parliament, 1802.

  2. A Treatise on the Law of Ways - Humphry Woolrych, 1829

  3. Steam Carriages on London Roads - Walter Hancock, London, 1838

  4. A Treatise on Roads, Their History - Simeon De Witt Bloodgood - 1838

    from Albany New York - lectures on the history of recent paving, with comments on tolls and despotism

  5. General Rules for Repairing Roads for surveyors on the Holyhead Roads - 1827

  6. Letter to Sir Alexander Muir M'Kenzie on Scottish Roads - McAdam - 1833

  7. A Practical Treatise on Making and Repairing Roads - Edmund Leahy - 1844

  8. Observations on the Formation, State and Condition of Turnpike Roads - A H Chambers - 1820

  9. The Practice of Making & Repairing Roads: - Thomas Hughes - 1838

  10. Rudiments of the Art of Constructing Roads - S Hughes - 1850

  11. A Treatise on Roads - Henry Parnell - 1833

  12. An Act [57 Geo. III. Cap. Xxix] for Better... - Google Book Search

    Metropolis Paving Act, 1817 - Michelangelo Taylor Act (?)

  13. Lights and Shadows of London Life - James Grant - 1842

    descriptionof ethnic ghettos; Jews and Quakers, their neighborhoods andappearances. begging imposters and the typical figures of cantdictionaries

  14. Hydraulia, an Historical and Descriptive... 1835, William Matthews

    a historical description of London's water supply

  15. Sinks of London Laid Open: A Pocket Companion...

    George Cruickshank, 1848.A flash dictionary with excursions through lodging houses, kitchens, hells, etc.

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Blogger Peter H said...

wow........yes definitely worth a serious look. As an environmmental scientist involved with water management and treatment loved the book Hydraulia. Quite a classic!

Great post!!

6:17 AM  
Blogger Chris Bassoo said...

Posted by Chris Bassoo

Congrats on being blogger of note...great commentary and great blog...BRAVO

from your friends in Canada

warmest of regards Christopher Bassoo

8:47 AM  
Blogger Abby said...

Quantitative and open databases of word-count and thematic analyses.


This reminds me a little too much of some of the more pedantic aspects of philology. Considering how many times "aut" appears as the second word in a sentence fills me with a peculiar kind of dread. It always makes me think that the people doing that sort of work can't see the forest for the trees.

I am sure that there are some who can, and you are probably one, but there are certain Latinists who can't.

I agree that GoogleBooks is very cool. Is there a pay version for copyrighted works? So often I can read a few pages of a book, and then I get a message which says that pages x-xz are not included.

Hope that all is well with you, btw.

12:41 PM  
Blogger J said...

man, thanks for the comments, ya'll, and many thanks to the sweet folks at blogger for giving me a little publicity!!

abby, to your questions, most books i'm looking at are full text. they're early nineteenth-century, and the copyright isn't under debate. the situation is different for anything in the twentieth century, where it's a little mysterious whether any given book is in our out of copyright, when, for whom, and whether they have lawyers. so for those books, google often has the full text, but won't show you anything except the small passage which you searched for. it's a way of saving themselves from getting sued. for some of those books -- usually the most recent -- they have a deal with the publishers where you can buy the text. i don't know of any situation yet where libraries or individuals can subscribe, but this would be interesting.

abby also brings up the interesting problem of the limits of word-count philology. she and i both took classes at a particular classics dept where word count was an obsession -- this back in the day of apple ii-e's, with the entire ancient greek corpus recently electronified and made searchable. quite a few scholars made names for themselves doing word counts of texts, and proving when, where, and why a particular language, term, or concept had entered the culture. but it was also pretty constraining for those of us interested in critical theory, psychoanalysis, and political readings of text. those weren't encouraged in the way qualitative word count was.

these days i'm in the world of modern british history, 1700-1900, where nobody does word count, no texts are electronic, and an awareness of philology, much the less critical theory or psychoanalysis, is pretty rare. social history is relatively new to modern history, and its tools derive from the readings of personal letters common amongst political historians who were trying to make sense of debates over particular pieces of legislation. only since the 1980s have social historians been closely reading images for their political significance, and only a handful of path-breakers are reading texts as evidence of greater connection.

we need all of these tools, but we modern historians need some of the philological/quantitative ones even more than the classicists, when our millions of texts compare to their hundreds. how do you make sense of such a lengthy corpus?

1:44 PM  
Blogger JJN said...

Excellent writing - started me on a long discursion about where libraries find themselves in all this.

As an aside, have you seen this:

Speer, Alfred.
Treatise on city travel with a true solution of rapid transit: Speer's plan of an endless train for rapid through transit of passengers without stops: and rapid local accommodation, combined on one train: the quickest and cheapest system ever presented... and it c19's on...

We have it at NYPL in the Parsons collection, (Parsons) VDCP p.v.33.

Sort of a tram plus moving sidewalk, elevated of course, as all futurist transportation must be. The booklet has a gorgeous engraving of the proposed conveyance with its various refreshment rooms along its length and the commerce of the city (largely hay wagons, it seems) continuing underneath.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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rCache is a great tool for researchers/students to store all of their research in a central, online database. Supports Tagging, etc...

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7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if you haven't been a bit short-sighted on the merits of libraries and traditional research methods. There is a disturbing trend in the "googlization" of academic research- if only by the limits of the results provided by google (I believe about 35%), it is enough to merit using google as only a portion of the overall research scheme- hardly a substitute to the overall percentage of relevant articles found by multiplying your research methods. Your post makes it appear as though traditional means of research, or multiple research methods, are no longer necessary with this new technology. It is this mentality that leads undergraduates to believe Wikipedia is useful for serious academic work and not just casual use, or that one can find everything there is to know about roads by typing "roads" in the google search bar. I strongly recommend Hubert Dreyfus' "On the Internet" for some persuasive material regarding the organization of information on the internet.

9:34 AM  
Blogger J said...

Anonymous, I think you mistake excitement at finding a new tool fo the ignorance that assumes it to be the only tool. My enthusiasm for Google Books comes because it was able to contribute something new to my research after I had already circled the world for this information, pillaging a variety of specialty libraries, among them, Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks landscape collection, the Maps Collection and Center for British Art at Yale, the Royal Institute of British Architects Collection, the Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, the Cambridge libraries, and the Public Records Office. I was also going through whatever ILL could bring me through the well-organized mechanisms of the University of California. I've seen ephemera and political documents pertaining to the road that were never looked at by any of the thirty major historians who wrote about the road in the course of the twentieth century. It is utterly a delight, then, to encounter other books that did not turn up in my exhaustive ramble through the traditional methods.

Furthermore, Google Books may mean the possibility of applying new tools that are now simply not available with the other kind of text. The word-count and documentation databases I mentioned are now only a dream -- Google's caution with copyright laws puts them out of the realm of possibility for the moment. But should those become possible, they will open up a realm of research possibilities that are now only experimental in the humanities. To give but one example, it is now possible in the text-searchable, online OED to find all words with "road" or "walking" in the definition that had their origin between 1810 and 1840. By traditional methods, most of these would never have turned up; they're too far apart in occurance, we tend to focus on polemic rather than slang texts, and the shift would have escaped me. This datum about the OED is now a major piece of evidence in one of my chapters, allowing me to advance conclusions I would not have been able to make before.

It is absolutely true that historians will have to be more cautious now than ever about teaching undergraduates what it is that historians do. There's a thin line, sometimes, between awakening students to the wealth of easily accessed material all around them, and teaching them real research. Undergraduate History courses try to give students a glimpse of what the real making of history is like -- from research in the material archives, to weaving and justifying a hard historical argument. Much as chemistry students have to get their fingers wet with experimentation, we want to get them involved with the process of making History, to gain some respect for the work that goes into it. After teaching my students the difference between archival and reproduced material, I don't limit my students' use of anything they find, but I do require them to have at least three primary sources from the archives -- actual papers they can touch, smell, and cough on.

We do want our students to use Google Books, ephemeral films online, and other free, accessible resources. In their future lives as journalists, politicians, or dilettantes, they can make intelligent use of these pieces of history -- maybe not enough to challenge the major scholarship of the day, but certainly enough to put together some piece of a narrative, to show people how something works, to make people look around differently.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose I get wary with broad provocative claims like "In that period of time [six months], Book Search has accomplished enough to transform the academic profession." Your tone is geared more towards the pragmatic in your response to me and emphasizes the use of these free, "ephemeral" tools (research library tools aren't free for students?) for a milder, more egalitarian, easy-does-it research tool set for non-specialists than your original post seemed to advocate. Perhaps in your research and the methods you teach broad OED keyword searches are critical for your conclusions. This is fine, but novel gadgets that help you do this hardly pass for a general revolution in university-level scholarship and research.

1:08 PM  
Blogger J said...

I explain my sense of the transformation of tools available to academic history in the latest post.

Like the Quantitative Turn in History in the 1950s, the Representational Turn of the 1980s, and the Spatial Turn of the 2000's, a Digital Turn in the 2010's is certainly possible. Revolutions in academic practice depend precisely upon such a use of new research tools, new archives, and new questions.

The Digital Turn is by no means complete, and contemporary observations can only speak out of experience. Certainly my own experience suggests a vast change in potential questions and tools.

The Digital Turn's absolute potential depends on the use made of data by archivists, historians, and geeks -- how far they take the opportunities here, how open they make the data. I sense another such turn in the directions currently available. Certainly my own experience has been revolutionized by these tools.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Great stuff, but it could use a little copyediting. I was brought up short by 'mackeral' (it's mackerel) and 'Very vast vista'. But I agree that the idea of having a centralised 'teaching establishment' - whether you call it a school or a library or a university - is looking increasingly daft.

One can only hope that Google will hurry up and do the copyrighted books too.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Annerose said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous CreditThinker said...

This GoogleBooks thing is great. Most of the books are usually fond only in specific libraries. It's really hard to write a decent paper if you leave away from the major research centres.

4:02 AM  
Blogger Larry Cebula said...

Jo: Good post! The current generation of graduate students are going to grab these new technologies and steal a march on us old fogies. At least historians of the 19th century will do so. If you study anything after 1927, you don't gain nearly the same traction.

By the way, you can also get a print-on-demand hard copy of any of these books if you like via a service called I ordered a book through them and blogged about it here:

10:14 AM  
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10:36 PM  
Blogger dissertation said...

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3:56 AM  

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