Google Books: surprisingly cool

Hey, I’m married to a librarian.  So the whole “we’re scanning everything” crusade that Google Books and the University of Michigan have been on for the past few years has not always been received with open arms around our household.  I’m even on record (somewhere) calling this project “digital Fordism.”  And it was meant perjoratively.  (At the time, I thought that was an original idea, but I just googled it.  Oh well.)

Lately I’ve been preparing a class on early 20th century social history and I’ve been (sort of) loving GoogleBooks.  Lots and lots of good, full-text material from the pre-1923 era (i.e., the cut off for public domain).  For instance, I wanted to start the class by presenting students with several visions of social division circa 1900, and it was very easy to search and find things like Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth”, Jane Addams’s “Modern Lear”, Henry D. Llyod’s “Wealth Against Commonwealth“, DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, and even a good variety of Eugene Debs’s work.  All of it full text, free, and downloadable as a PDF.

What else?  Jack London novels; lots of classic progressive era investigations (tho sadly not too much from the Chicago School of Sociology);  various volumes of federal investigations:  Industrial Commission, USCIR, Immigration Commission.  All very cool.  But oddly, federal records from the post 1922 era don’t seem to be freely available.  So for instance the LaFollette Committee hearings (search for Violations of Free Speech and the Rights of Labor) are listed, but not available in full text mode.  This is frustrating since all federal publications are public domain.  Who didn’t get the memo?

But through it all I’m still left with the thought that this massive digital library is missing one very important element:  LIBRARIANS.  Gobs of information.  No organization.  A dozen volumes (maybe two dozen) of the Industrial Commission, but no way to link, order, or index them.  No way to indicate that these separate volumes are in fact part of a whole work. No way to browse them together as you would in a LIBRARY.

Historically this has been the task of catalogers.  Might Google Books create a way for it’s users to serve that role, albiet in a less skilled manner?  Or better yet, as I suggested in a long-ago review of a digital archive:  as we digitize real libraries, might we retain some of the value-added by generations of librarians?  Subject headings are probably pie in the sky.  I’ll settle for some linkage of volumes that are obviously part of the same publication, but were divided because the mechanics of the book-form dictated it.

Enough complaining.  For your amusement I’ve added an RSS feed of my GoogleBooks “library” down in the sidebar.  Now you can see exactly what I’m “reading.”  Soon we’ll see how much my students “read.”

By the way, you can request a reprint of these full-text volumes via this site:  http://www.publicdomainreprints.org/ which also allows you to search the Internet Archive.  You can review my experience with this process here.

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4 Responses to Google Books: surprisingly cool

  1. Tim Lacy says:

    Thanks for the GoogleBooks review. This sounds great for short excerpting—whether by printing or reading online—but I still don’t know anyone who’ll read an entire book online. Of course this explains your last link about reprints. But how much does that singular, special printing cost? I remember ordering a reprint of a 1920s Adler book back in 2000 and paying about $60 for it. I had no choice, but that’s a lot of dough.

    On “digital Fordism,” the same thing has happened to me before. Googling things really hurts one’s sense of originality sometimes. – TL

  2. Toby Higbie says:

    Actually, the reprint service is not too expensive. I got Robert Park’s “The Immigrant Press” for about $17, and it is roughly 500 pages. I have requested but am yet to purchase one or two pamphlet length items that priced under $10. So theoretically, this could be assigned to undergrads.

  3. Tim Lacy says:

    I clearly did not order my book from the same service! Your example certainly puts the books in a reasonable undergraduate price range. Thanks, TL

  4. Toby Higbie says:

    Of course, it isn’t perfect. Like so many old library books, many of the scans have passages underlined and/or have notes in the margin. And worst of all, most of them are watermarked by the corporation that scanned them. It’s more than a little annoying to see “Scanned by Microsoft” on every single page of a classic sociological text written in 1922.

    I imagine this will be even more annoying when I order copies of Socialist tracts.

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