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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