Exploring Google Book Search

by Lee Gesmer on August 1, 2008

In November 2005 I wrote an article about Google Book Search and the legal efforts of copyright owners to stop Google from achieving its goal of digitizing the world’s books and making them searchable on Google. The lawsuit filed by the Author’s Guild described there has dragged on with little visible activity and no apparent end in sight, but in the meantime Google has been digitizing books like nobody’s business. Although Google won’t disclose how many books it has scanned (why is this a secret? certainly not because of the lawsuit – the answer would easily be discoverable), word on the street is that as of a year ago Google had scanned a million books. If true, and if they are going full steam, they may be approaching a million and a half by now. Probably more than both you and I could read in a lifetime.

Searching and browsing this collection is awkward, but interesting to a book lover. While Google only displays “snippets” of copyrighted works, there is a vast collection of books whose copyright has expired. Presumably, these unprotected works are constantly expanding in number, as copyrights expire with the passage of time. Absent some truly extraordinary action by Congress, which can’t be ruled out entirely, it’s only a matter of time before every book is free of copyright rights.

Google displays uncopyrighted books in “full view.” You (the user) can create your own “collection” of books (basically bookmarks maintained on Google Book Search), see information about the book (publisher, publication date, and so forth), view the book either in its original format or in plain text, and search the full text.

You can also embed snippets on other web pages, as I’ve done below. Here are a few notable or interesting books that I dug up, both beginning and ending with what some claim to be the most published book in human history. You can “click through” to get the full work on Google Book Search.

The Federalist Papers, published in 1864:

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The Federalist A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States : a Collection of Essays By Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, John Church Hamilton

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah, by British explorer and polymath Sir Francis Richard Burton. published in 1906:

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Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah By Richard Francis Burton, Isabel Burton, Stanley Lane-Poole

And lastly, the Old Testament in Hebrew (“Bible Hebrea”), or what fragments are left of it, published in 1280 and from the collection at the Complutense University of Madrid, which itself traces its history back to 1293.

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Biblia hebrea

Of course, you may have digital images of millions of books, but you still don’t have everything. I’ll bet Google is anxious to get its hands on the Codex Sinaiticus (image below).

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