The Google Books Project is no doubt an important, in many ways
invaluable, project. It is also, on the brief evidence given here, a
highly problematic one. Relying on the power of its search tools,
Google has ignored elemental metadata, such as volume numbers. The
quality of its scanning (and so we may presume its searching) is at
times completely inadequate .
The editions offered (by search or by sale) are, at best, regrettable.
Curiously, this suggests to me that it may be Google’s technicians, and
not librarians, who are the great romanticisers of the book. Google
Books takes books as a storehouse of wisdom to be opened up with new
tools. They fail to see what librarians know: books can be obtuse,
obdurate, even obnoxious things. As a group, they don’t submit equally
to a standard shelf, a standard scanner, or a standard ontology. Nor
are their constraints overcome by scraping the text and developing
search algorithms. Such strategies can undoubtedly be helpful, but in
trying to do away with fairly simple constraints (like volumes), these
strategies underestimate how a book’s rigidities are often
simultaneously resources deeply implicated in the ways in which authors
and publishers sought to create the content, meaning, and significance
that Google now seeks to liberate. Even with some of the best search
and scanning technology in the world behind you, it is unwise to ignore
the bookish character of books. More generally, transferring any
complex communicative artifacts between generations of technology is
always likely to be more problematic than automatic.