This starts off as another grading story, but doesn’t stay that way. Google Books has not only been a Godsend for my own work, it has substantially improved the quality of the research papers I have to read at this time of the semester. So many excellent pre-1923 sources are so readily available that I can be certain that any student with a topic before that date who doesn’t have at least five primary sources in their bibliography wasn’t trying very hard.
However, there’s sources they read, and sources they don’t. By way of illustration, a really good student of mine cited Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography twice in her paper for my grad class on slavery. Once the citation came from the book itself, the other time it was as a quote excerpted in a secondary source. To me, this is a pretty good indication that she didn’t read the entire book.
More obviously, I’m pretty sure this is the same reason why two different students both told me that Theodore Dwight Weld was a slave. They didn’t look beyond whichever page of American Slavery As It Is that Google led them to in order to see that its subtitle is “testimony of a thousand witnesses.” I can’t say I blame any of them though as nobody wants to read an entire book on a computer screen.
When I was an undergrad, one of my TAs told us that the key to success in history was not knowing what to read, but knowing what not to read. In other words, he was advocating skimming. By giving us the ability to search whole texts by the word, Google Books eliminates the need to do precisely the kind of single subject-centered skimming that my old TA was recommending. The problem with this new ability though is that it means that students (or historians for that matter) citing out of Google Books risk losing the context for their quotes unless they read the whole thing and the interface in Google Books is not exactly reader friendly. It’s bad enough having to page back through a scan of a late-nineteenth century magazine to get the volume number for the citation you need. Who wants to read an entire book that way as long as theirs a paper alternative?
Maybe using an e-reader might make this process easier, but most students don’t have Kindles or Nooks…at least not yet. They access their electronic sources mostly through laptops and the desktops in the university library. I suspect they’d often be better off getting the paper copy of the book and taking it home. After all, contextual knowledge is often more useful than any particular quote they might find, but then again sustained, critical reading is so Twentieth Century.
Larry McMurty has a short review of a book about Amazon.com in the new Harper’s that I think is highly relevant here. As I write this, it’s not even on the Harper’s subscribers-only web site yet, so you’ll have to trust my transcription from the paper magazine that arrived in my soon-to-be-extinct mailbox yesterday afternoon:
“Jeff Bezos and his colleagues are free to make and sell as many Kindles as they can, but Bezos shouldn’t be persuaded that our Gutenberg days are over, at least not from where I sit. One thing we offer [at McMurtry's gigantic used bookstore in Texas] that he can’t is serendipity – a book browser’s serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find. Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Serendipity is also an important part of historical research. I still remember the thrill of the first time I went downstairs into the stacks at the Hagley when I got my first fellowship there. I just pulled stuff off the shelves and browsed for hours, counting only on the titles on spines and the proximity of Library of Congress numbers to guide my wandering. I can’t tell you how much great stuff I found that day for my dissertation that I wouldn’t have found otherwise, but I’m sure it was a lot.
To play off McMurtry some more here, stirring the curiosity of students is an important part of any history professor’s job. I certainly hope our apparent post-Gutenberg future doesn’t kill that feeling entirely. I am certain of this though: Jeff Bezos doesn’t care one way or the other as he’s only in it for the money.