Google Book Search

So today was my first serious encounter with google book search. I hadn’t played around with it much, but came across an unattributed phrase in a so-so book on animal rights called An Unnatural Order. The book argues that the domination of nature through agriculture, men’s domination of women, people’s domination of animals and colonial domination are all interrelated. I think they’re cast as too homologous and the author doesn’t really carry through the argument. I have been trying to wrap up a section on animal experimentation in psychoacoustic research and so have been rooting around in the Animal Rights literature. Which is interesting, but ultimately not helpful since most of the arguments are normative, ethical, political as opposed to more historical-critical. Good for thinking about my relationships to animals,(1) but they haven’t led me to more profound statements about animal experimentation beyond the “gee whiz that’s barbaric,” which isn’t enough.

Anyway, at one point the book had an uncited quote from Claude Bernard. Here’s the quote:

With the help of these active experimental sciences, man becomes an inventor of phenomena, a real foreman of creation; and under this head we cannot set limits to the power that he may gain over nature through future progress in the experimental sciences.

Not elegant, but I wanted to see the context. My expectation was that I’d pick up the book in the library but first I needed to know what book it was in.

So I did what probably thousands of scholars do every day — I googled the phrase to see if anyone else had cited it. And up comes google book search, and there is the quote as clear as day at the bottom of the penultimate paragraph on page 18 of Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.

Now, I had my answer and I had a little context. Not too much since the publisher is clearly not interested in anyone actually reading the book through google. But it was enough to get me through the session and now I can peruse the book at my leisure.

It also immediately made clear to me the utility of a massive, searchable online database of everything that has ever been published, even if that is a pipe dream decades away.

It’s not news that people are concerned that google wishes to own this database. I’m concerned too. And certainly owners of the rights to books like Bernard’s are worried about making this work available online. But the problem I have is that all these concerns about ownership and intellectual property trump the point of the books’ existence in the first place. All authors who publish can be said to wish to be read. All readers who seek such authors wish to read them. Libraries have been a traditional end-run around the property-relations issue. Can’t or don’t want to buy the book? You can read it in the library or check it out, and if they don’t have it, there’s always interlibrary loan.

The problem with the online model, as it stands, is that there is no moral equivalent of the library when it comes to this imaginary database. But there should be, because as of yet no digital technology has surpassed the codex for conviviality, portability, scalability or durability. I will still buy and read books, and I will still check them out from the library so long as there is one, but I might like to search them online first, for legitimate, scholarly reasons. For that matter, if I had no institutional certification, I should still have free access to that sort of thing. That’s the spirit of the public library. I suspect that something much less will drive the creation of such a database, and we will all be the poorer for it.