That’s the subtitle of an article by Anthony Grafton in the latest New Yorker on the business of putting books and other written material online. Grafton begins with the wonderful writer Alfred Kazin and his encomium to the New York Public Library (“Anything I had heard of and wanted to see, the blessed place owned…”) and goes on to Google Books and its mission to “build a comprehensive index of all the books in the world” and the wild-eyed “millenarian prophecies” it has spawned (“Last year, Kevin Kelly… predicted, in a piece in the Times, that ‘all the books in the world’ would ‘become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas'”), continuing with a compendious history of libraries, cross-referencing, and abridgment that includes such tidbits as Jacques Cujas’s “rotating barber’s chair and movable bookstand that enabled him to keep many open books in view at the same time.” Then he gets back to Google, Microsoft, and other players in the digitization game, and explains why “The supposed universal library… will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money.” My main complaint is that the piece isn’t longer; at four pages, it’s a mere appetizer. Fortunately, the online version of the magazine has a sidebar that “points to some favorite archives and historical resources,” and among the links to be found there is one that addresses my subsidiary complaint, that he doesn’t complain enough about the wretched failures of Google Books, Robert B. Townsend’s AHA blog post Google Books: What’s Not to Like? Townsend lets them have it:
Over the past three months I spent a fair amount of time on the site as part of a research project on the early history of the profession, and from a researcher’s point of view I have to say the results were deeply disconcerting. Yes, the site offers up a number of hard-to-find works from the early 20th century with instant access to the text. And yes, for some books it offers a useful keyword search function for finding a reference that might not be in the index. But my experience suggests the project is falling far short of its central promise of exposing the literature of the world, and is instead piling mistake upon mistake with little evidence of basic quality control.
He details all these failings, except for my particular bugbear, which is addressed in the first comment on his post:
You didn’t mention my pet peeve. In my work, I need to basically fact-check some historical info. The snippet view for copyrighted works would be, if not ideal, then sufficient for my objectives. That is, if the snippet actually included the search terms requested with a little surrounding text. However, more often than not some text other than what one asked for is highlighted, but one can’t, of course, scroll up or down in the snippet to see adjacent passages. So one is left wondering: now what? This is now more than just incidental. I’ve reported it to Google and they respond that it’s still beta so be patient.
— Jim Roan
You tell ’em, Jim! That “snippet view,” more than any other single thing, makes me dislike Google, and for years I never thought I would have any reason to dislike Google. Shape up, guys—make sure your snippets at least include the searched-for material and provide full view for the out-of-copyright stuff, and we’ll love you with that unreserved love you’ve gotten used to; keep pushing these defective goods and someone else will come along and do it better.
(Thanks for the links, Paul!)