Sunday, October 29, 2006

If you have not yet explored the burgeoning world of Google Books, you probably should. (Google Scholar,, another increasingly indispensable arrow in our quiver, is a separate project altogether.) In its ongoing efforts to be all things to all people always, and for free, Google is rolling out the fruits of its controversial labours to render the world's books in electronic form. Simply Google "Google Books" and start searching. As in Google Scholar, but unlike pretty much every other known bibliographic search engine, searches carried out in Google Book search through content as well as the bibliographic details.

Only very limited access is available for copyrighted material, but having found something one can always swing from Google Books over to the University Library. For material out of copyright, however, the entire tome is often provided, and the option of downloading the whole thing as a PDF file is sometimes offered. At the start of each search you can choose to call up only "Full View Books" if you wish. Once found, you can click on the index or, perhaps better yet, used the search facility to check through the text itself.

Curiously, clicking on a desired item found in a search will often land you on a fairly random early page: typing the Roman numeral "i" in the box for page searches will get you right back to the start of the scan -- quite possibly to the outside cover of the book, in fact, from where you can advance forward.

The materials currently on offer reflect the idiosyncrasies of the scanning process, which is spread among a number of major research libraries. People researching nineteenth-century topics will find a vast array of materials now out of copyright. Happily, the bounty of the 1800s includes many antiquarian editions of medieval and early modern manuscript sources, as well as nineteenth-century editions of earlier titles that might or might not have made it to ECCO or EEBO.

We had our best people take Google Book out for a spin, and here are some of the completely random results they came back with.
  • John Spalding's indispensable but not entirely trustworthy Memorialls of the Trubles in Scotland and in England. A.D. 1624-A.D. 1645 is available, albeit the first volume is from the flawed 1828 edition, and the second from the superior 1851 edition. Go figure.
  • The Diary of Alexander Jaffray is so far provided in the 1833 edition, so we must still await the preferred 1856 edition.
  • Those of you who look back fondly to the days when no good sin went unpunished will rejoice, or at least nod approvingly, at the news that John Stuart's undeservedly ignored edition of the Selections from the Records of the Kirk Session, Presbytery, and Synod of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1846) is available in its censorious entirety.
  • To show that even Google is not perfect, we can confirm the widely unreported fact that there is a scanning flaw on page 82 of the first volume of Miscellany of the Spalding Club (Aberdeen, 1841) -- so don't discard those old photocopies just yet! Being Google, however, we were invited to report the flaw on a straightforward form that conveys every intention to fix the problem.

All in all, Google Books marks yet another stride in the electronic revolution that is making it easier for Saskatoon-based historians to conduct advanced research, and harder to plead that the sources are not available locally.