Google Books vs my library (1-0 Google)

It’s been a while since I played around with Google Books, and I have to say I’m impressed. When it first launched, it was lousy – the search engine was basically broken,  so that (for example) a search on the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities would return hits from books that discussed Dickens’ work, but not the original book, even though it was in the database.

All that’s changed, the search engine seems to be working fine, and the presentation of the site is much, much better. The front page gives you a random selection of books (with cover pictures) in categories like interesting, classics, highly cited, and a random subject (science, etiquette, sisters…).

Clicking on an individual book and then ‘more about this book’ gives you links to web pages, other editions, citations in other books and scholarly works, the text of frequently quoted passages,  links to related books, even a Google Maps mashup showing the location of places mentioned in the book. And an option for you to write your own review of the book. It looks, frankly, great. Take a look and compare to any given library catalogue – we do not come out well.

Now here’s the kicker. I was doing some research earlier this week on Thurn und Taxis (the originators of the European postal system; Thomas Pynchon fans will understand why I was interested).  I tried our library catalogue (and WorldCat), but no good – there were only a few books on the subject, and mostly in German. I turned to Google Books, and found a free-text search returned a number of relevant books, including one that was held in the VUW library. I’d never have found it via a library catalogue (not even with subject searching; check the LC headings). What’s more, over the weekend many Wellington organisations, including VUW, lost their internet connection due to an ISP fault. So I couldn’t access the OPAC, or any VUW databases. I wrote my whole paper based solely on scholarly sources I’d accessed through GBS.

Given that this thing is only a few years old, what does that say about the future relevance of libraries? I’m well aware of Michael Gorman’s argument that books need to be read through from cover to cover, to follow the author’s argument. I agree with him that such reading is currently better done using a physical book. But not all scholarly reading follows this pattern. I didn’t need to read every book cover-to-cover. I didn’t even need to read whole chapters. I needed the very specific parts of each book that discussed Thurn und Taxis; and that I could get from GBS.

Karen Schneider has some comments about the dangers of jumping into bed with Google, and I’m sympathetic. At a rational, long-term level, I don’t like the fact that so much of my data is with Google, and that we’re ceding them (anyone) control of these resources. But at an emotional level, and  in my day-to-day life, I love the fact that Google’s services are where I am; and that they work.

So it’s a wake-up call. If they’re doing this now, what will GBS be like in 10 years? Why would anyone come into our libraries, if they can access the collections of some of the world’s top libraries via GBS? (OK, I know that GBS theoretically only makes part of each book available. It took me about five minutes to work out how to bypass that, without using any special software or doing anything illegal. I would be surprised if most vaguely tech-literate teens would take longer).

Phil Bradley was not happy with Google Books’ My Library feature, pointing out its poor import functionality, and stating that he much prefers LibraryThing. I agree, but My Library is quite useful and easy to use as an adjunct to GBS. I wouldn’t use it on its own, but as a means of bookmarking interesting books that I’ve found via GBS, it’s incredibly easy (one-click AJAX goodness) and does exactly what I need it to.

About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
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