How Google Books is Changing Academic History

Peter Brantley writes in email: “a Berkeley grad student disses the experience of the Berkeley library system and lauds Google.” Jo Guldi, the author of that blog entry, wrote:

“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….

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.

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.”

It’s important to remember, though, that finding and reading out of print books is just the beginning of the benefits of digitization. (That’s why it’s important for at least the out-of-copyright books to be available in more open formats.) Last year, Gregory Crane asked “What Can You Do With a Million Books?,” and pointed out that things get most interesting when you can compute against this corpus of books. Computing doesn’t just mean measuring or counting (though those things may also be useful). It may mean reshaping in creative, unexpected ways.

At O’Reilly, we’ve done things like create automated content statistics, extracted just the examples so they could be used for code search — both by us, and by other code search engines. We’re all just taking baby steps, though.

The clearest example I’ve yet seen of the possibilities of using digital technology to breathe new life into old material remains David Rumsey’s work with maps. Once he’d digitized his collection of 30,000 old maps, he was able to do things like georectify them, mapping them to a consistent size and coordinate space so that maps from different eras could be overlaid on each other, creating timelines showing the evolution of cities and landscapes. This is an awesome demonstration of why access to otherwise unavailable materials (the creative commons Lessig talks about) leads to the creation of new value.

Bringing this thought round full circle, academic historians have long been immersed in this kind of creative re-use, but as Jo Guldi wrote in the blog post that I quoted from above, their work is being turbocharged by online access and book search.