Thursday, March 22, 2007

Academic impact

Berkeley PhD student Jo Guldi describes how Google Book Search is revolutionizing her historical research.

Google Book Search is a relatively recent phenomenon... six months ago, right? About six months ago I was pottering around there, finding a few illustrated nineteenth-century texts, a lot of contemporary books for sale, and not much of too much interest. Six months turns out to be a long time in book land. In that period of time, Book Search has accomplished enough to transform the academic profession.

I was idly trying a search on "roads" to see what sort of a literature would turn up for the period of my dissertation research, 1740-1850. I didn't expect much. I've spent the last two years wandering through the Yale, Harvard, and California libraries, the British Library, Britain's National Archives, and the immense reserves of North American Inter Library Loan reading every book on London, pavement, or travel I could get my hands on.

Surprise. In a single idle search I just added twenty extra full-text books to my list.

Which are, by the way, full-text searchable --

-- and subject to word-count analysis --

-- and replete with full illustrations --

-- and instantly digestable into visuals for powerpoint presentations.

Hallelujah, GoogleBooks. And holy mackeral! Good work.

By now, the first half of the nineteenth century exists in a very complete form on Google Books. In the last six months, while academic history has meandered in its habituated paths of grinding research, the possibilities of scholarship have been utterly transformed.


What this signals, by the way, is the opportunity for a new age of scholarship. Cultural and image analysis used to be painfully time-consuming, heavy lifting, involving rare kinds of access, full fellowships, immense travel, and long waits for delicate books. Comparison between different cultural sources was even harder, placing absurd demands on the cultural historian's personal memory and note-taking skills. Cultural historians, despite their many skills, stood second in depth of research on any particular topic to political historians, for whom one visit to a Parliamentary archive and one visit to a personal residence outfitted them with every last detail of historical change. Now all that is changing. Comparing a hundred images is no longer a problem for a year's labor in an out-of-the-way museum reading room. Comparing a hundred personal accounts from working men is no longer a task to eat up a social historian's entire year.

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