Thursday, January 7, 2010

Defending Google Books

At a session at today's AHA annual meeting in San Diego, digital history guru Dan Cohen gave a talk entitled "Is Google Good for History?" Cohen's answer was an unqualified yes. He writes:

Is Google good for history? Of course it is. We historians are searchers and sifters of evidence. Google is probably the most powerful tool in human history for doing just that. It has constructed a deceptively simple way to scan billions of documents instantaneously, and it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money to allow us to read millions of books in our pajamas. Good? How about Great?

After spending this entire day on Google Books reading nineteenth-century Civil War sermons, I agree wholeheartedly with Cohen. Messiah College does not have a strong library collection, so I really don't know what I would do without Google Books. (In fact, my work study student is probably mining the Google collection as I type).

I not only use Google Books to look for obscure primary sources, but I have gotten into the habit of reading secondary material there as well. There have been times when I have had a monograph on the desk in front of me, but chose to pull the book up on Google because it allows me to search the text for exactly what I want.

Finally, Google allows me to do a lot of work from my home study. I use two monitors--a smaller monitor for my manuscript and a larger one for the book I am looking at on Google. Some scanned books have a "plain text" feature which allows me to cut and paste directly into my notes.

Is Google good for historians? Do we really have to ask this question? Of course it is.

ADDENDUM: Check out this Inside Higher Ed piece on Cohen's talk.

ADDENDUM #2: Dan Cohen has chimed in in the comments section to remind me that his support of Google Books is not "unqualified." Check out the text of his talk for some substantial criticisms of Google's operating policies.