Google books: A great reference tool and nothing more.

As a reference tool, Google Books is pretty good. You can do a normal search, and get as results any matching books that Google has indexed. With the recent burgeoning of Google deals with large and well known libraries (for example The NYPL, Oxford University Library, and Harvard Library), Google Books looks set to include the full text of a decent chunk of published works. This means it is now possible to effectively run a Google search on the content of a very large library, and have the results returned in a relevance ranked order with little snippets of text for context. It’s also possible to add the things you read to a “personal library”, assuming that you have a Google account, meaning that when you just have to find the poem you read in a book that includes the line ‘the stars carried the helpless one ribbed moon away’, you can search specifically in the books you have read.

There are a few implications of this technology, though, that are problematic. The first is that under the current law, Google is being sued for copyright infringement because they have to make a copy of the works they make searchable to create the search index. Normally I would think this was a reasonable use (even though technically it’s legal), but there is a loophole that I discovered yesterday that does make me slightly uneasy on behalf of all poets: The context that Google provides around the search terms in the results allows you to search for the next line of the poem, and for a short poem, it is relatively easy to read the whole thing. Admittedly this is a somewhat cumbersome process, and admittedly it is not likely that any poet will lose a sale out of it, but you see these snippets without direct attribution to the poet, if your search results come from an anthology, and this is a sad loss of a moral right for the poet involved.

The second problem is that this knowledge is tied up in a commercial corporation who by law has first responsibility to their shareholders, but by popular cachet is the source of information on the internet. Libraries are nervous about a monopoly on information, and while some may view this as just one more twist in the historical antipathy between libraries and Google, I think it is in line with the freedom of information principle that it should be available from more than one source, if possible.

The third issue is one that is close to my heart, and one that Sara and some of these comments got me thinking about. Google books are great if you already know what you are looking for, but if you don’t have some search terms already, it’s hopeless. More than that, though, there is no serendipity: you go, you type in some words, you find the book and either read it online, buy it, or reserve it at your local library, and you leave. You never get to see the book on the shelf next to it might also have been useful, or just walked past a display that might have had something interesting for other reasons. Now, chances are that some people wouldn’t have bothered to go find a book if they didn’t have Google books, but some of them would have. Improving serendipitous information encounters (i.e. online browsing of information sources) is something that attracts a lot of research attention (including my own, for a year), and some novel approaches. And to me it is this that is the real user experience failing of Google books — not that I don’t want to actually read online, not the copyright issues, but that their browsing experience is boring and cumbersome and smacks of an afterthought. Until Google can provide me the same rich browsing experience that an actual library or bookstore does, it will only be a reference tool.

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3 Responses to “Google books: A great reference tool and nothing more.”


  1. 1 Sara Jervis Wednesday, November 7, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Dana,

    I look forward to your sagacity about things www and the inherent usability or otherwise of programs.

    Do you believe that there is a problem per se with the limitations on serendipity for users or do you believe that programs like google books are manifestly lacking and should be better and improved?
    I am still in wow land about this and the other new programs I am discovering through 23 Things. I am not sure if the obstacles or inherent flaws are irrevelant or fundamental. I am not sure whether to roll out 101 analogies, like older people do, that what is offered is brilliant and to heck with minor “problems”.

    With google books, I believe the program is one MORE way to search. Whatever I need to know I can find out as can one billion other users. I am not sure whether to be sympathetic to your exposition of problems, say with lack of serendiptity and neighbourhood browsing, or whether to be like an old codger and say ” you should have seen how we found out about things 10 – 20 – 30 – 40 years ago”!

    Your posts make me analyse what is new, what is vogue, what is essential and what is lax on the part of www inventers.

  2. 2 danamckay Thursday, November 22, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Sara, thank you for your thought provoking comment. I agree with your view that Google books is merely one more way of sharing, and you are welcome to be an old codger, though I should probably point out that I have actually been taught to use a paper abstracting service myself (and gone on to use it).

    My concern is that as these online services become more popular, fewer people will do things the way we do them now, and this could lead to the end of serendipity (for me personally — unless I know exactly the book I am looking for — I infinitely prefer to wander the stacks than search online, because I always find many more interesting things than were my goal anyway).

    I have done quite a bit of research on online browsing, and have maintained an interest in it long past when my project finished. I would not like to see the end of serendipity, but I also think many of the providers of these services are being lazy — there are ways to provide serendipity in searches, ranging from tags to cover displays like coverpop and coverflow. My challenge to Google would be “provide more than just search for books, or you’re not really a good information system, much less a library”.


  1. 1 A legacy to those who are yet unborn* « Libodyssey Trackback on Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 4:49 pm

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