A New Addition to the History Student’s Toolkit
Here are a few hints for working with what strikes me as one of the most useful new information sources that’s become available to us in the recent past. It is quite possible that some of you getting this message may be much more au fait with this than I am, given that you are members of the web-enabled generation and that I am emphatically not, in which case I’d appreciate getting your comments and suggestions for incorporation into a revised version of these guidance notes.
What is Google Books?
Google Books is an enormous project for digitizing the contents of major research libraries, principally in the US and the UK so far (Stanford, Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Bodleian at Oxford, etc.), and making them fully searchable and (within the constraints of the somewhat uncertain laws of copyright) viewable and even downloadable for users.
Why should it interest History students?
Principally because, among the materials already digitized, and most freely available, there is a wealth of C19th works, including many public documents and even entire runs of specialized magazines. UG and PG students working in the areas of British and US history for the C19th period are thus particularly well served with printed primary source material which adds enormously to the stock of knowledge at our disposal.
But what if I’m not specializing in the Victorian period?
This is where other parts of the growing Google Books collection become useful to you – notably the scanned texts of masses of recent books on everything under the sun where, by agreement with the publishers, parts of the text (typically Tables of Contents, the first few pages of most chapters, and a selection of pages from the text as a whole, on which search words that you’ve specified appear) are available to view. Sometimes a “Limited Preview” Google book will provide you with enough of the contents that you feel you can dispense with the costly business of e.g. making an inter-library loan application; or at least, you will know that the book is going to be worthwhile before you take that decision, and spend your and/or our money on an ILL request.[ In order to get maximum value from a Limited Preview book, you should use the word search facility to select out those pages in which you are most likely to be interested. If you just scroll through such a book, you will find that there are great lacunae – sequences of pages apparently missing, or unavailable. Using the word search technique will enable you to view even a page which is apparently unavailable. There will still be some inaccessible pages, and you may run into what Google Books calls your “viewing limit” for a particular work, but in general I find that I can get most of what I want this way.] Even a “Snippet View” of a book can provide enough hints to its content to guide this decision.
How do I access Google Books?
You can do this very easily via any web browser at http://books.google.com/, but it’s probably easiest if you download the Google Toolbar http://toolbar.google.com/ and also open a Google account. The Google Toolbar can be customized to include buttons giving you direct access to a number of Google’s information services (including Google Scholar http://scholar.google.com/ ), and if you have a Google account you can also acquire a set of Google Bookmarks, which are extremely easy ways for you to save direct links to individual books or the results of previous searches that you’ve found most useful. They are ‘platform-independent,’ i.e. you can access your Google Bookmarks from any PC, anywhere. But you can get a lot out of Google Books without the Toolbar or an account. The choice is yours.
How do I find stuff on it?
Dead simple, of course – this is Google, after all! At the very simplest, you just type in keywords describing the topic you’re interested in, and leave it to Google’s usual search logic to produce a list of results ranked in order, with those which it thinks are most relevant coming first. Thus, for example, if I search today (12 July 2007) for “open fire place” I will get 26,500 hits, with Jared Putnam’s 1880 classic The Open Fire-Place in All Ages in pole position, because it has my three search words in the right order, in immediate proximity to one another, and (we can be confident) the same exact phrase repeated often throughout the volume. If we were to work down the list, we would find an increasing proportion of false positive results – e.g. works of military history in which the phrase “open fire” occurred – but basically we can rely on Google’s logic to produce good results first, and won’t waste too much time if we work through the hits in the order they’re served up to us.
How do I refine my search?
This is more a matter of experience than exact rules. You don’t want to specify so many search words that you get few hits and miss genuinely relevant material; on the other hand, you don’t want to be swamped either. Suck it and see.
There is also a very simple way of cutting down the number of results you may need to wade through. The above 26,500 hits are the result of a default “All books” search, and include items (a) where no preview at all is available – very frustrating, but at least you know they may be relevant, and perhaps worth looking at in a real rather than virtual library; (b) where all you get is what Google calls “Snippet view,” i.e. you will see three short extracts of a few lines from the book giving you a flavour of what’s there; (c) where you have a “Limited preview” [see above]; and (d) where a “Full view” is available. You can filter your results by specifying that all you’re interested in is Full View works, in which case the number of hits declines to 1,820, or Limited Preview, in which case you’ll get 6,650.
How do I squeeze maximum value out of my results?
Let’s suppose that you’ve decided just to work with Full View books, so that you’re not going to run into the frustration of knowing there’s something entirely relevant for you inside a volume, but not (or hardly) being able to see it. The top item is an article in the Quarterly Review for 1885. If I click the link, it’ll take me to the page where there’s the best match for my search words (p. 170). But suppose that what I’m really interested in is Victorian ideas about the importance of open fire-places as sources of ventilation – health-giving fresh air. I can search within the book for the word “Ventilation” and now I’ve got a further 8 hits on particular pages. So I don’t need to read the whole article if I don’t want to, and I’ve now picked up other citations too – I can, in effect, scan the whole book at one go, and read it with the aid of an index entry that’s been customized for my needs.
How do I actually read onscreen?
Google Books has two modes for displaying books to you, page by page:
Standard Mode, in which you can increase or decrease the page image size, and/or get two pages side-by-sid
e in regular book view; and
Basic HTML Mode [cursor down to the bottom of the menu at the RH side of the screen to find the option], where you just see one page at a time, and its size is fixed.
Whichever mode you are in, there are also two options for viewing books:
Page Images – these are what they say. Your search terms will be highlighted in yellow.
Plain Text – this provides you with an automatically-generated version of the text on a page, i.e. it doesn’t include images. This can be very useful for note-taking – rather than having to re-type material, you can simply cut-and-paste. But there are some limitations: there are many errors in the optical character recognition (OCR) process, especially with small or non-standard fonts, or faint printing, and formatting/paragraphing is rudimentary, so you will have to edit carefully the text you pick up this way; more significantly, it doesn’t work with Limited Preview books.
Standard mode is much more flexible, especially with the addition of two more options:
(a) Full Screen, at the RH side of the pale-blue menu line, which gets rid of the menu of onscreen options, and gives you a larger, less cluttered reading pane; and
(b) something which works in Basic HTML mode too, i.e. using the standard Windows option View Full Screen (F11), which eliminates the Windows and Internet Explorer or other browser menu bars at top and bottom, and gives you the biggest possible reading pane. Using these together, you can get a reading pane where there’s enough space that two book-pages are actually quite legible side-by-side.
Browsing: You can scroll through a book, from page to page; or move to a particular numbered page; or click the blue arrows to go forward or back a page; or, if you’ve done a word search within a book as described above, you can just go from the site of one hit to another (listed, with ‘snippets,’ in the menu bar on the RH side of the screen). It’s all very easy.
How do I take notes easily from a Google Book?
It depends how you work. If you take notes on paper, this is no problem. But if you take them (as I do) on the PC itself, then what you have to do is this:
open your note-taking software, whatever it may be, and reduce the size of its window so that it just occupies the top LH corner of the screen (I work with a window that’s about 4/5ths of the width of the screen, and a little over half the depth). This means that I can overlay my note-taking window on the reading pane, and by moving from one program to the other via Alt-TAB I can scroll through the book and take notes more or less as I go. (I can also, of course, drag the note-taking window around the screen if it gets in the way of reading the text.)
But I don’t just want to take notes, I want a copy!
There are various ways of doing this.
One of the easiest, with a Full View book, is just to download a PDF of the book to your own PC. These PDFs can of course be enormous, and if you’re using the free version of the Adobe reader you can’t search within them in the way you can via Google Books. (What you need to do is to search for particular pages on Google Books, and make a note of them – then you can go to them using the Adobe reader, but bear in mind: Google Books has intelligent pagination, whereas Adobe counts every page – blanks, front matter, etc. So p. 374 of a book won’t necessarily be the 374th page in a PDF file.) But if you want a permanent copy, and the ability to print off pages at will, this is a good option. You can build up your own little library of heavily-used works, for the duration of a project.
You can also cut-and-paste from Plain Text view of a Full View book, if what you are interested in is just shorter extracts and quotes of the kind needed for notes.
With a Full View book in Basic HTML mode, you can also save a copy of a particular page using the regular Windows “Save Picture” command (where you can also, of course, E-mail a page to yourself, or print it, if that’s more convenient). This is particularly helpful if what you want is an image from a page. Sometimes you can save a basic JPEG file; other times a higher-definition PNG or BMP file.
What I do is to make sure I name these files distinctively – e.g. if they’re from an 1885 book by William Keep, I’ll name the image of p. 236 as Keep_1885_236, so that as these pages accumulate on my PC (a) several pages from the same work will be in the right order, and (b) I will always be able to link images to my notes, so that I can supply a full bibliographical reference for them if I need to.
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The problem arises when you’re working with a Limited Preview book (or perhaps a Full View book where, for some reason, the system doesn’t let you download single page images). Try the same routine on one of these and you’ll find that Google defaults to saving the image under the name Cleardot.GIF. You can try to rename it if you like, but it won’t make any difference, you’ll end up with an image file of 0 length and containing no content – an empty placeholder.
This is, I am sure, a copyright rather than a technical issue. But, as usual, there’s a work-around. What you do is to operate in Standard Mode so that you have full control over page image size, single- or double-page, etc.; and then you use the PC’s Print Screen key to “snap” the whole screen as an image onto the clipboard, which you can then paste into (say) a Word document. If what you want is to copy several pages or double-page spreads from a single book, you can paste them into a single Word doc, and organize them very easily in that way.
(N.B. Even with a Full View book, you may wish to use this technique if you want, for example, a higher-definition version of an illustration on a page than a JPEG snashot of the whole page will provide. You can blow it up using the Standard Mode controls first, and then snap an image of it.)
There are a few problems with this approach. Your page images will always have some ‘junk’ as well as the pages themselves – everything else on your PC’s screen, even after you’ve minimized the junk element by working in Google Books’ Full screen and Windows’s own Full Screen (F11) modes. Your files will also become huge if they contain more than a few such inserted Print Screens. And you’ll find that the definition of the images is not great, for viewing/printing purposes.
But there’s a way around this too. If you save the Word doc as a Web page, and then look at the directory where you’ve stored it, you’ll find that when Word saves an .htm or .html file containing images, what it does is to create an associated subdirectory where the images are actually stored. Go into one of these subdirectories, and you’ll find that there are actually two versions of every image you’ve squirted in via Print Screen: a low-definition JPEG, which is what you can see in, or print from, your Word document; and a higher-definition PNG file. What I do then is to use a picture editor to trim the framing ‘junk’ from around the page images in each PNG file, and I rename them in accordance with the image file naming conventions set out above – e.g. Keep_1885_236 for p. 236 in William Keep’s 1885 book. Then I move them into whichever directory I’m using for storing PDFs, files of notes, page images, etc., relating to a particular project, or topic within a project.
It takes longer to describe this than to do it, and those of you who are more experienced in dealing with images than I am can probably suggest better ways.
What else can you get from Google Books?
One of the valuable facilities is, in effect, a quick-and-dirty citation finder. < br/> You may already be familiar with the Web of Knowledge’s citation-indexing system, or you may be in the habit of doing JSTOR searches for e.g. “Prestwich Edward” if you want to find references to Michael’s works (i.e. track articles citing them – a good way of spotting ‘families’ of related articles that you may need to get your head around), reviews, etc. But Google Books will do something similar, and quite useful, for you, dealing with books, not just or mostly journal literature.
Method: suppose that the book (or article) I’m interested in, i.e. the range of whose scholarly connections I want to know, is e.g. my own first (The Right to Manage). I stick in a search for “Howell Harris Right Manage” (including common words like a, an, and, to, or the confuses matters and adds nothing) and I get 532 hits [264 with Limited Preview]. This is actually quite interesting for an author – answers the “who’s been sleeping in MY bed?” question – but, even if you don’t have this particular reason for wanting to know, it is useful to be able to form an almost instant image of the group of scholarly works which seems to have felt a need to cite an item. It tells you what’s connected, and when you’re shaping a research bibliography it helps to have this awareness of relevant literature in a field. As an indication of the accuracy of Google’s search algorithm, three of the authors at the top of the hit list are friends of mine, which probably helps explain why they think well of my stuff and cite it often enough for Google to notice; two of the others are people whose books I’ve reviewed; and the other one is the author of a book I should have read.
* * *
Another way you can get this sense of a book’s scholarly interconnections is just by clicking on it and then clicking again on the More about this book option in the menu column on the RH side of the screen. You will see:
links to reviews (and if they’re in EJs to which we subscribe, or JSTOR, you can follow the link to the text)
links to mentions of the book on web pages
links to (online) books and articles to which it refers, and which refer to it
and links to related books.
This is an extremely good, quick way of forming an idea of where a particular book fits within the universe of scholarship, and figuring out what you should wish to read, if you are interested in the topic(s) connecting this extended family of books and articles together.
Finally, and this is not a “just for fun” option, if you scroll to the end of the “More about…” page, you will often see a nice map showing places mentioned in a book. This can itself be revealing, because it enables you to (literally) place a book in space as well as time. The second item in the results table for my book is my old friend Mel Dubofsky’s State and Labor in Modern America. The Google map of this book shows a strong concentration of mentioned place-names in the north-east of the United States. This is both predictable – that’s where the industrial economy was concentrated – and actually quite significant: Mel’s “United States” is actually a country whose history is looked at rather selectively, in which some regions are barely worth mentioning. Looking at a map of a book’s contents in this way actually provides us with an entirely new way of seeing history.
* * *
The trouble with Google Books is that there’s so much in it that the temptation is to investigate every little feature.
There’s just one more that’s worth mentioning now: the Find this book in a library option. Google interconnects with WorldCat, and thus you can see if the University Library holds an item. Suppose that it doesn’t? Stick in your postcode, and Google will tell which other libraries in WorldCat’s world hold the book, sorted in order of how far away they are. This can actually be very useful, even if (all too frequently for a US historian) the answer is that the nearest library is on the US E. Coast.
I would be very glad to get feedback on this, if you try to follow these suggestions and find them either (a) useful or (b) too complicated to be helpful or (c) inadequate, and capable of being improved upon (there is a better way from A to B) or even (d) incomplete, because I have missed a feature you find valuable.