Does Google Books make research too easy?

15 01 2010

It is a strange feeling to get two links from the AHA Today blog in their annual meeting review when I wasn’t even there. However, I’m grateful they did otherwise I wouldn’t have found the prepared remarks of someone who was there covering one of my favorite subjects: Google Books.

Here’s three paragraphs from Dan Cohen of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason that appear all in a row in a paper well worth reading in full:

Google Books is incredibly useful, even with the flaws. Although I was trained at places with large research libraries of Google Books scale, I’m now at an institution that is far more typical of higher ed, with a mere million volumes and few rare works. At places like Mason, Google Books is a savior, enabling research that could once only be done if you got into the right places. I regularly have students discover new topics to study and write about through searches on Google Books. You can only imagine how historical researchers and all students and scholars feel in even less privileged places. Despite its flaws, it will be the the source of much historical scholarship, from around the globe, over the coming decades. It is a tremendous leveler of access to historical resources.

How true. Yet copyright law occasionally gets in the way of that leveling. I’ve started advising students doing open-topic research papers that they might want to lean pre-1923 just so that they have access to the most full texts that Google Books has to offer. [ I have no idea if copyright in other countries makes it easier or harder to get full texts, but when I was doing research in Australia last summer there were all sorts of pre-1923 things on Google Books that I couldn’t access from there.]

Google is also good for history in that it challenges age-old assumptions about the way we have done history. Before the dawn of massive digitization projects and their equally important indices, we necessarily had to pick and choose from a sea of analog documents. All of that searching and sifting we did, and the particular documents and evidence we chose to write on, were—let’s admit it—prone to many errors. Read it all, we were told in graduate school. But who ever does? We sift through large archives based on intuition; occasionally we even find important evidence by sheer luck. We have sometimes made mountains out of molehills because, well, we only have time to sift through molehills, not mountains. Regardless of our technique, we always leave something out; in an analog world we have rarely been comprehensive.

Yet in that analog world, when something was comprehensive you knew how much work there was behind it. I sometimes wonder if Google Books makes research too easy. So much material at your fingertips and fully searchable. Perhaps its not that research will somehow go out of style. I suspect Google Books will put more value on filtering skills rather than finding skills. Certainly it will stop me from ever again being impressed just by someone’s bibliography.

This widespread problem of anecdotal history, as I have called it, will only get worse. As more documents are scanned and go online, many works of historical scholarship will be exposed as flimsy and haphazard. The existence of modern search technology should push us to improve historical research. It should tell us that our analog, necessarily partial methods have had hidden from us the potential of taking a more comprehensive view, aided by less capricious retrieval mechanisms which, despite what detractors might say, are often more objective than leafing rapidly through paper folios on a time-delimited jaunt to an archive.

Actually, it’s always been possible to expose historical works as flimsy and haphazard assuming someone bothers to follow someone’s footnotes. I’m not sure most historians will feel the need to elevate their game now that someone can check their footnotes more easily. Footnotes exist for historians to lay out the research process in the clearest way possible on the assumption that their footsteps will be followed in the future whether they actually are or not. Personally, I’m excited that students will have an easier time following someone’s research process by accessing more of their original material so that they can see the process of historical interpretation in its rawest form.

PS to Dan (just in case he follows my link back here): Is it possible to back up Zotero on your own computer or are we users totally dependent upon the cloud?


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2 responses

15 01 2010
Dan Cohen

Thanks for these very thoughtful comments on my piece. You should copy them into a comment on my blog post as well.

Perhaps I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at, but you can always backup Zotero on your own machine or external hard drive. You just need to copy Zotero’s data directory (you can figure out where that is in Preferences, under the Advanced tab). And Zotero always keeps a backup copy of your Zotero database on its own, in case something goes wrong. You can also sync your Zotero files to your own cloud using WebDAV (also under the prefs).

23 02 2010
It’s probably because he’s not writing about food. « More or Less Bunk

[…] the core of my response from the comments (which isn’t all that different than what I wrote here): I don’t think it’s tenure requirements that should go up; it’s publishing standards. […]

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