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research: December 2010 Archives

Happy holidays, gentle readers! I hope you've had a productive 2010, and wish you all the best in the new year.

To start the year off right, run, don't walk, and sign up for a Google account. Sure, you get free email, free chat, and many other things, but if you work for a history organization, the best thing you get is a Library and the Google eBookstore.

As you know I happen to write fiction, and have been following with some interest the turmoils of the publishing industry, which likes to blames its struggles on the emergence of epublishing, ereaders, ebooks, and every combination thereof. To be honest, I think the publishings powers that be simply have a business model that no longer works, regardless of the status of electronic publishing. Ebooks currently represent well less than 10% of the titles being sold, so clearly they aren't to blame for money troubles. And, until last week, I really couldn't see the advantages of ereaders over print. But in about 10 minutes, I changed my thinking, at least in the arena of historical research. How? I discovered the Google eBookstore.

Love it or hate it, Google is a huge market force that you need to be aware of. And Google has announced a really audacious goal of digitizing every book. That's right, every one. I realize that goal is a moving target, and I imagine Google does too, but dang, they have put a lot of power behind it. And with relatively little fanfare, they've rolled out the eBookstore, which I kind of knew about, but never visited until I stumbled there last week.

Here's the scenario: I am currently working on a project to create a series of "character cards," actual printed cards with a biographic profile on one side and an image on the other. I've spent most of a year tracking down portraits and representative images. Last week I went to the Connecticut State Library with my project director, who is an experienced historical researcher (great place, by the way; I highly recommend it). We found one portrait in a book, but I wanted a digital version, so later that day I looked for it online. 

To make a long story short, I wound up at the Google eBookstore. I've known about Google Book editions of historical texts for awhile, but I hadn't realized that Google had gathered them together in the eBookstore. That doesn't sound too amazing, does it? So, why am I trespassing on your valuable time to tell you about it?

Two words: "killer app." For those of you who regularly or occasionally need to search for a historical figure, a name, a family, a place, or pretty much anything, Google has digitized and key worded literally thousands of out-of-copyright historical texts and put them in the eBookstore for free. That's right, $0, zip, nada. And instead of downloading them, you can "purchase" the book and put it in your Library, where you will have access to it from anywhere, forever. That means you can't lose it if your hard drive crashes, or your office burns down, or if you forgot to bring it to a meeting. (This is called "cloud computing," by the way.)

In the course of ten minutes, while I was Google chatting with a friend, I "bought" more than two dozen titles, most of which are quite rare. The Jonathan Trumbull Papers. The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, 1636-1776. The Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, vol. 12, 1898. Family Letters of Samuel Blatchley Webb. Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, vol. 13, 1911. History of Montville, Connecticut, 1896. Letters of Life by Lydia Howard Sigourney, 1866. Even an article in The Auk, the magazine of the American Orinthological Union, written by my great-grandfather in 1887. And the list goes on....

What's even more remarkable is that each of these epubs in keyword-searchable. So, gone are the days of poring through these books looking for names, places, and dates. I can do it all in Adobe Acrobat in a matter of seconds.

The upshot is, I'm completely hooked. The Google eBookstore is like drugs for the history geek - one try, and you're an addict forever. I'm not sure what this means for the future of research libraries. I mean, I'm proud of my new Connecticut State Library research pass, but I'm not sure how often I'll use it, especially as Google marches forward in its goal to own the written word. I'm also not sure what this means for the future of specialized research training. I'm thinking there will always be a need for a few, highly trained experts, but the power has definitely shifted to the people.

Go check it out, and let me know what you think. I'm predicting you'll be like me - an instant addict. Happy new year!







research: Monthly Archives


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