Friday, August 05, 2005

I (heart) Google Print

For the third time in the past week, I've been able to answer thorny reference questions using Google Print that I otherwise would have simply given up on. Two were somewhat unusual requests from library patrons -- the first was a subject search and the other an attempt to track down an otherwise elusive author -- but what really confirmed my high opinion of this powerful new tool was my own success in solving the mystery of a cryptic reference my employer in Athens left me to decode and find so that he could include the material cited therein in a new CD-ROM he was compiling about the Apocalypse of St. John.

All I had was a last name, a date, a general topic, and three words from what I presumed was a title (of what exactly I was not sure). Like the good humanistic researcher, I went to all of the customary databases for Classical and New Testament studies only to come up blank across the board. While I could find at least a dozen articles written by the author in question, none of them were the material that my boss was so eager to get a copy of. So on a lark I tried Google Print, since it had been so helpful in my assisting other patrons in finding what had seemed to be unfindable via the traditional routes of library research. And lo and behold -- there was my mystery reference, on the second hit of the table of search results, listed in a bibliography of New Testament scholarship.

Although the bibliography was itself within copyright, I was permitted to view the page on which the search engine had found a match (you are also permitted to view three adjacent pages in either direction, the table of contents, and the index for any book that Google Print has scanned; out-of-copyright works can be viewed in their entirety, although they may not be printed out in hard copy), and that was more than enough to steer me to the proper volume on the shelves here at the library. Mission accomplished! And to think that I was about to throw in the towel on that search, had I not thought to give Google a try.

Of course Amazon has been offering a similar service for a while as well, but Google's search capabilities beat the pants off of its competitor. Google Print also doesn't muddle the results of its searches by trying to sell you unrelated stuff conjured up by your keyword searches in Amazon, although it does offer links to purchase any the books appearing as potential search hits. Of course Amazon is coming at the searcher as a prospective buyer, while Google is not, but for all of the outward differences the work behind the scenes is startlingly identical. Google and Amazon are the Alexandria and Pergamum of the digital era, two giants in a race to scan all of the world's knowledge and make it available at the click of a mouse.

The implications of this mass digitization movement are nothing less than staggering. If Google Print just in its embryonic form can perform wonders at the reference desk, imagine what will be possible when virtually every book that is currently extant and on a library or bookstore shelf somewhere has been scanned online and is 100% searchable. Right now English faculty and students fortunate enough to belong to a college or university subscribing to Early English Books Online and 18th Century Imprints -- two mammoth databases provided by Chadwyck-Healey that purport to offer every book printed in English between the 1450's and 1799 available in scan-able virtual form -- are experiencing a veritable revolution in the way they pursue their research. What once would have taken a lifetime of effort can now be done in milliseconds, freeing scholars to concentrate on broader themes and make connections that would have been impossible in the days of leatherbound concordances and important editions of texts scattered all over the libraries of the world.

For a long time I despaired for the future of humanistic studies. But Google Print and similar endeavors have given me a burst of optimism. Not only will scholarship in these fields be enhanced as a result of digitization, but it will become more relevant as well as it becomes easier and easier for people to access this scholarship. To borrow a meme from Jeff Jarvis, digitization and democratization are inextricably intertwined -- not just in the wild and wooly world of blogs but in all forms of online content. The more that is scanned and made searchable, the more humanity as a whole will benefit. And while it is true that much of this information is still locked within the confines of proprietary databases (many of them hideously expensive), Google Print and Amazon hint at a future where this may no longer in fact be the case. Information may never be "free," but there is promise that someday it will be cheap enough for anyone to partake of it. And that's a wonderful thing.


Mr. Snitch said...

I had heard Google was doing this, but forgot about it. I'll link to your post.

Tom said...

Thanks! Google Print is an incredibly useful resource -- the more people spread the word, the better.

Ray CHOW said...

"Google and Amazon are the Alexandria and Pergamum of the digital era ..." kind of exploit that Microsoft missed out throughout its 25 years reign