Google Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars?

Critics of Google Book Search (and its class-action settlement with publishers) are popping up everywhere. European governments have voiced their displeasure. The US Justice Department has placed the settlement under review. Amazon is protesting. Yahoo and Microsoft have piled on too. And now you can add academics to the list. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Nunberg, a prominent UC Berkeley linguist (who also often appears on NPR), wonders what will happen to scholarship if Google Book Search becomes the world’s largest digital library (something the class action settlement would virtually guarantee). The problem comes down to this:  The average person will be able to “google” the digital library (“When was the Franco-Prussian War?”) and find useful information. But scholars will run into problems when they try to ask more finely tuned questions. (“When did the word happiness start to replace the word felicity in the English language?) And that’s because Google’s metadata is a “train wreck: a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess.” For example, according to Nunberg, Google metadata says that all of the following texts were published in 1899. Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the RainThe Portable Dorothy Parker, André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine, Stephen King’s ChristineThe Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society 1780-1950, and Robert Shelton’s biography of Bob Dylan. And it dates Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities back to 1888. You don’t really need to be an academic to get the gist. Google has some kinks to work out, especially if it’s going to be the only major online library in town. For more, you can read Nunberg’s longer piece here.

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