I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been lost in Google Books. Okay, not literally. We don’t have the technology yet to physically enter into a virtual geography of Google Books, but I can say that I’ve been overwhelmed lately by the sheer volume of materials available to my eyes and fingers. Tara’s most recent post about the Wellcome Collection’s Exquisite Bodies has peaked my interest. I had planned a completely different blog post, but after reading Tara’s discussion of the benefits of close proximity to such wonderful collections, I started to think about my own experiences of late — lying in bed with a laptop poring over an endless number of digital documents from the Victorian era. Complete volumes of Punch, medical texts about railway injuries, treatises on telegraphy, Dickens’s complete correspondences, complete volumes of Wilkie Collins’s lesser-known fiction, etc, etc. Google Books has completely changed the way I do research, and I don’t even have to leave my apartment.

I know digitization of texts has been discussed endlessly on the web and in academic circles, so I don’t want to repeat the same old, same old here. But I am curious about one thing. Let me formulate it as a direct question — am I a bad scholar for finding enjoyment in the wonders of Google Books? I know I’m not because I approach both digitized materials and dusty old books with the same critical scrutiny. Yet, I can’t help thinking that I’m not performing the duties of a scholar through my frequent perusal of Google Books.

In all things, I try to avoid the old, tired argument that we have lost something in the digital age — that the aura of the scholar’s life dimishes with every hour not spent in a library or special collections room. I certainly have access to real books, and old ones too, but somehow I just prefer Google Books and other online collections. Most recently, for example, I’ve been fascinated with the College de France’s digitized collection of Etienne Jules Marey’s documents and photographs.

In essence, I guess I’m curious about the affect of digital archives. Yes, the aura of special collections — real books, real prints — is an amazing experience, one that I always feel deep in my nerdy academic bones. But, for me, the wonder and curiosity of Victorian texts is the same whether the books are found on library shelves (or passed over a counter by a special collections librarian) or in Google Books. My biggest worry is that academics have begun to hide the fact that digital collections can be incredibly beneficial to our research. Google Books hasn’t become a guilty secret has it? Academics have enough guilt as it is, so I’d like to state right here, without guilt, that I love Google Books! It excites my intellectual curiosity. There’s no postmodern waining of affect in my apartment.

That said, real, dusty, crumbly books are really cool too. I just might go to the library this afternoon…

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9 thoughts on “Lost in Google Books

  1. Daniel, I love Google Books too! I guess it has become a bit of a cliche, as well as an accepted truth, to say that digital books don’t come close to the real thing. Admitting that you actually prefer Google Books might shock some (older?) academics, but it’s true that many of us will spend more time on Google Books then we will in an archive these days. On the plus side for technology, you can’t crawl into your bed or have a coffee with a rare, dusty old book! On the other hand, I am one of those people who can’t stare at a computer screen for too long.

    I do think using Google Books is still a bit of a guilty secret, perhaps because it is so easy. What used to be a challenging, time-consuming, but rewarding day in the archives now might only take 5 minutes of typing and clicking. It’s not cheating, though, and I think we’re coming closer to accepting that. Thanks for an interesting post!

  2. One thing that is totally amazing to me is that research in our field changed hugely just in the time I was in graduate school. At the beginning of my master’s in 2003, I had to pull up books from the Bodleian, and it really felt like I was doing real scholarship for the first time. I took copious notes because I knew I’d be returning to North America and was worried I wouldn’t have access to that kind of material again. But by the time I returned to my research on orthopaedic surgery for a conference paper last fall, much of the material was up on google books! And more–I wondered if I was responsible for the French history as well as the English history of orthopaedics, and ended up including some material that previously would have taken a trip across the channel. For me that was a moment of intense anxiety–was I now responsible for everything on google books as well as everything in the Bodleian? But it was also exciting, because these online resources really can make your work that much better without the tremendous financial and time-related resources that an archival trip takes. I hope the affect of google books isn’t anxiety overall–either because of fear of technology or because of increased expectations for scholarship, but I suppose that is one feeling the digital archive can provoke!

    Sorry Daniel, that was a really long comment! But it was an interesting post!

  3. I’ve thought about that sudden sea-change often, Karen. It’s odd to look back at the footwork that went into my earlier papers, so much of which can now be accomplished without leaving my desk. I do wonder what will change in terms of institutional expectations regarding more “physical” or visible forms of research. The tricky thing about research is that it’s not just necessary for the advancement of your writing. It also seems to be necessary for the advancement of your career (one expectation of postdoc apps, for instance, being the location of site-specific resources for your project). With everything rising to the surface online, I’m beginning to have a hard time finding something hidden enough to count as ‘real’ research.

  4. Have you found that these developments change the quality as well as the quantity of research you do? Two buttons on my computer (Apple + F on a Mac) have drastically changed the way I use all of the rest. I now tend to comb through most texts for certain keywords in this way.

    Obviously, the traditional index has value not only as a reference tool, but as a telling indication of how texts, and discourses more broadly, have been structured. Which terms warrant notice, and which are we intended to pass over without a second thought? The word search function supplants these more deliberate and selective attempts at indexing with a spotlight that works on your own “terms.” Even when I’ve got my hard copy of the novel in hand, the Gutenberg e-copy of Dracula means I can be sure I’ve caught every reference to “speed” and its variants without dragging my finger through 600 pages of print one more time.

    The downside of this shift in focus might be that I now enter many books with certain keywords already in mind, as opposed to walking in blindly (and perhaps spending more time wandering around the text). The upside would be all of the accidental convergences that arise when particular “telling” words tug authors into discourses they might never have consciously seen themselves as contributing to.

  5. These are some great points! Like Karen and Gregory, I too went on numerous research trips only a few years ago to hunt down archival sources that are becoming available on Google books. If I may add another positive to the list, at a time when wasting resources (whether financial or environmental) is increasingly problematic, google books is really providing a useful service to academics like us!

  6. I haven’t had a chance until now to contribute further to the discussion. I think Karen raises a very good point about what we are responsible to know in the google-books era. Are we responsible for knowing the archival material as well as that which we can find in google books? This is an important question, but one not strictly practical. It also has theoretical and philosophical significance, particularly in terms of a diagnosis of our own times. I’m beginning to suspect that we might now be required to know more as well as less about our research topics than in the past. On one hand, access to google books allows us to search out research materials on even the most obscure of topics. Yet on the other, I suspect that our research has become more focused on the quotidian and the obscure than on the big ideas, the connections that link the obscure to the cultural big picture of the Victorian period (whatever that may be). Do we still need to know the big picture — the ideas that make us “Victorianists”?

    Hey Gregory, why are you looking for the word “speed” in Dracula? I’m reading a lot of stuff about speed right now. Let me know what you’re thinking about it…

  7. Karen, I too feel the pressure to be more comprehensive simply because I have access to more material through Google books. Having just come back from VSAWC, I’ve been questioning what “more comprehensive” really means. In a conference setting, I worry that if I’m relying on obscure texts, it will be hard to get meaningful feedback from panel discussions. I suspect that the minutia that I can glean from Google books also requires that I give more background on the sources, which cuts into the space I have to address larger ideas.

    Google books has changed my relationship not only to archives, but also to the books I own. Like Gregory, I tend to use Google books to find keywords in the dusty old volumes from my living room….and I must say, I love it!

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