Historians Throw the Book(s) at Google

Here’s a straightforward question: Is Google good for history? Or, more specifically, is Google Books good for historians?

That was the topic of a lively afternoon session at the American Historical Association’s annual conference, happening right now in San Diego. The answer, as you might expect, wasn’t equally straightforward. In fact, for nearly two hours historians alternately praised Google for its stunningly ambitious project to digitize the world’s books and berated the company for missteps and a (supposed) lack of scholarly sophistication.

Kicking off the proceedings was Daniel J. Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Cohen said “of course” Google is good for history, but he went on to criticize the project for its lack of openness: “I cannot understand why Google doesn’t make it easier for historians such as myself, who want to do technical analyses of historical books, to download them en masse more easily.” You can read Cohen’s entire talk on his blog.

Paul Duguid was harsher. While Cohen prefaced his remarks by saying it was easy to heap scorn on Google, Duguid,  an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, thought critics generally pulled their punches. Duguid certainly didn’t. He said Google was “naive” going into the project and is guilty of “lying” about its search totals. He also mocked mistakes Google Books has made, particularly when it comes to metadata, that is, the information that identifies and categorizes a book or other material. Apparently, Henry James did not write Madame Bovary. It was some guy named Flaubert. Who knew?

The product manager for Google Books, Brandon Badger, gamely absorbed the blows, but didn’t really engage the criticism head-on. Badger’s message seemed to be, look, we’re getting better all the time and we have the very best of motives. He acknowledged that Google Books is imperfect and that they’re looking for ways to make searching books easier and the results more accurate. Still, the criticism kept coming and, by the end, the Google executive seemed to be searching for the exit.

Controversy over Google Books is, of course, not new. Read Jennifer Howard’s previous coverage of the lawsuit against Google by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers here and here. Read more about the proposed settlement here.

(You can read the blow-by-blow of the session, and other updates from the conference, on Twitter.).



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