Today’s topic is Google Books – an online service that’s revolutionizing research.
In a post last week, I complained that Carole King used the annoying word “respective” seven times in her otherwise-marvelous book A Natural Woman. One of my friends read that post and was gracious enough to say that she enjoyed it – but she also had a question: How did I come up with the number “seven”? I got the feeling that said friend was expecting me to confess that I’d guessed at the number.
But I didn’t guess, and I didn’t count the respectives as I was reading. I did find seven respectives in King’s book – quickly – with the help of Google Books.
My generation is the only group that can really appreciate Google Books. We’re making the transition from old-style research to the Digital Age, and we can still remember how tedious research used to be.
Here’s what’s going on: Google has made a commitment to scan every published book in the world – all 130 million of them. So far 25 million books have been scanned. Plans are to complete the scanning by the end of the 2000s. (You can read more about the project at this link.)
Google is not alone in this. Various organizations and scholars are doing similar projects that are more narrowly focused. So, for example, my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martín is busy creating a database from books by and about George Bernard Shaw.
This just in: Gustavo just said readers of this blog might want to visit https://archive.org/. There are millions of digitized books and other resources, all free! (Thanks, Gustavo!)
Back to Carole King. I went to Google Books and searched for her book A Natural Woman. A search box popped up. I typed in respective, and every sentence using that word appeared on my computer screen – seven of them. (A caveat: For copyright reasons, Google Books will sometimes provide only three instances of a search term per book. I got lucky with respective.)
I first stumbled on this amazing search feature when I was putting the finishing touches on an essay about Shaw and education for a friend’s book. To my horror, I discovered that I’d omitted the source for an important quotation. In the Bad Old Days, that would have meant an afternoon stumbling around the library looking for the quotation.
But this is the digital age. With trembling hands (I was new to Google Books), I typed the quotation into Google – and seconds later the name of the book came up. It was one of the 25 million that have already been digitized. Fist pump! Google even provided the page number (something it’s started doing far less often, again for copyright reasons -sigh).
Another example: The copyright limitations on many of Shaw’s plays have expired, and that means I can copy and paste lengthy quotations into articles I’m writing – there’s no need to prop open a book and type them myself.
One more example: A few months ago I created a series of instructional videos about writing a research paper (click here to see them – they’re free). It didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed an actual research paper to use as an example, so I wrote one about ragtime.
I have a nice library about ragtime right here in my living room – it’s my favorite music – but there are gaps. For example, I needed information about a historic ragtime performance at the Paris Exposition in 1900. In the Bad Old Days, I’d have spent an hour driving to a university with a good library.
But now we have Google books! I typed “ragtime” and “Paris Exposition” into Google, and pages from books about ragtime with exactly the information I needed popped onto my screen.
Young scholars don’t know how lucky they are. (I know, I know – I’m sounding like those geezers who love to tell you how they walked through two feet of snow to get to school! I can’t help it.)
- I remember card catalogs and having to wait, shifting my weight from one foot to another, because somebody was already using the drawer with the cards I needed.
- I remember requesting a book or magazine, waiting and waiting for it to be delivered – and then discovering that the pages I needed had been ripped out.
- I remember going through the indexes of maybe 20 books hoping that one of them had the information I needed.
- I remember hearing my professors reminisce about patiently go through hundreds of old books, page by page, looking for a particular word to tabulate how it was used. (I did that myself in graduate school with seventeenth-century British fiction.)
You young researchers don’t know how lucky you are!