Google’s book search: A “disaster for scholars”?

Geoffrey Nunberg thinks so. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he points out the many appalling errors to be found in the book search engine, in part attributable to Google’s sketchy handling of publishing meta-data:

Start with publication dates. To take Google’s word for it, 1899 was a literary annus mirabilis,which saw the publication of Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the RainThe Portable Dorothy Parker, André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine, Stephen King’s ChristineThe Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society 1780-1950, and Robert Shelton’s biography of Bob Dylan, to name just a few. And while there may be particular reasons why 1899 comes up so often, such misdatings are spread out across the centuries. A book on Peter F. Drucker is dated 1905, four years before the management consultant was even born; a book of Virginia Woolf’s letters is dated 1900, when she would have been 8 years old. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is dated 1888, and an edition of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is dated 1848.

But it gets worse:

Then there are the classification errors, which taken together can make for a kind of absurdist poetry. H.L. Mencken’s The American Language is classified as Family & Relationships. A French edition of Hamlet and a Japanese edition of Madame Bovary are both classified as Antiques and Collectibles (a 1930 English edition of Flaubert’s novel is classified under Physicians, which I suppose makes a bit more sense.) An edition of Moby Dick is labeled Computers; The Cat Lover’s Book of Fascinating Facts falls under Technology & Engineering. And a catalog of copyright entries from the Library of Congress is listed under Drama (for a moment I wondered if maybe that one was just Google’s little joke).

Nunberg makes some good points. As Google continues to take-over the traditional functions of bibliographic referencing, the temptations for shoddy scholars to crib from its inaccuracies will multiply.

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