Juan Cole: How Google Is Changing Scholarship






Google books is an astonishing, epochal development. But I am tired of journalists who write about it ignoring the fact that the core of the digitized collection is the 7 million volumes at the University of Michigan. It is always mentioned that Harvard and Oxford are participating. Last I knew, Oxford offered them access to 40,000 volumes.. But U-M President Mary Sue Coleman offered Google access everything we have, and has been good at giving the project an intellectual rationale. Google is going through the shelves and running optical character recognition on every book they encounter, in every language.

One problem: I am already finding poorly done books, where every other page is blurred beyond reading. This is very bad because I don't know when it would ever be corrected, and no one would have an incentive to carry out this sort of project once Google has.

I hope Google will tighten its quality control, and will commit to redoing flawed scanning jobs. For many research projects, only if everything is there will solid results be reached. I fear I think some of its subcontractors may be taking advantage and doing shoddy work, especially in languages other than English.

A second, general problem with Google is that on the whole it is no good at searching by date. Why is that so hard to put in a search engine? Is it that programmers just don't appreciate the desirability of being able to study instances of the word "liberte" in France, 1700-1789? You can put dates in the searches, but in my experience that doesn't return satisfactory results. If Google wants the project to have maximum impact, they need to address this problem. (It would be nice to address it in their general web search engine, too. Have you ever tried to find a document put up on the Web in 1998, where you don't remember whole search strings?) Otherwise, I see a business opportunity for a historian who has good programming skills . . .

Google is about to change everything in scholarship and maybe in the history of reading. Anyone interested in that issue should look at Elizabeth Eisenstein's "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change" and the works of Roger Chartier.

What is more, Google is bringing 1,000 jobs to the state of Michigan, which is the best news we've had since the 1967 riots that were Detroit's Katrina. I sometimes get readers writing that they had been under the impression that Detroit had come back. Well, there is the Renaissance Center. But most of the city limps along and is still firing police and firemen and making teachers take pay cuts. A Washtenaw county high tech corridor won't solve the problem, but anything that brings jobs and investment into the area is better than a kick in the head.

I wish there were a way to put an emphasis on training some young Detroiters in programming and begin reversing the brain drain that started in 1967.


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