Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
By LANA POPOVIC
Google Books, you confound me. I admit it freely. I can’t seem to get a handle on whether you’re coming or going or doing a barrel roll.
At first I thought I had you pegged as the big contender for world domination, but then Amazon began its bulldozing advance into the overseas market. And since the death of the Google settlement in March, and given the lack of a dedicated Google reader or a tablet—the iriver Story doesn’t count, so don’t try me with that smack talk—many are wondering if Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble will render Google Books irrelevant in the United States.
So just what is your endgame, Google, you tricksy minx? What benefits do you offer readers, other than your tantalizingly unpredictable ways?
Just last week, Google announced that it was creating an offline reading capacity for Google Chrome, available in both the United States and other countries in which the Google Bookstore has been established. Chrome users can now read their books on their laptops even when they find themselves temporarily severed from the Borg mainframe—I mean, the Internet. Granted, the Kindle Cloud Reader also allows offline reading, but Amazon ebooks shackle readers to the Kindle, while Google Books are device agnostic. Google uses ePub and PDF formats, which means that readers can access their books on almost any device—including the Kindle, for those willing to make treacherous peace with PDF. Google Support will actually help you load your Google Book onto all the major reading devices, no matter how persnickety or otherwise unwilling the particular ereader is.
Also, since 2009, Google has been offering rights owners the option to license their work under Creative Commons, which allows the public to share and remix them, encouraging creativity.
And let’s not forget that Google has made it their mission to catalog all of the world’s information, and make it searchable and otherwise usable. The tremendous amount of content they’ve amassed so far is now available for all sorts of nifty research purposes, to those who have always dreamed of solving the world’s mysteries by subjecting books to unspeakable experiments while maniacal laughter echoes in the background.
One such tool is the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which allows users to see how often a word or phrase has been used in books across history. Google Books contains over 15 million books, dating all the way back to the 1400s—in case you were wondering what percentage of the cumulative knowledge of mankind that might be, the answer is 10 percent—of which 5.2 million have been made available as data sets for the Ngram Viewer.
That amounts to 500 billion words in Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish, all at your fingertips. Because the Viewer can map concepts as well as isolated words, researchers and amateur historians might be able to use it to settle longstanding historical disputes. We’ll never have to wonder again whether it was Newton or that other guy who discovered gravity first. Or invented physics first, whatever it was. Y’know. Key stuff like that.
As a parting thought, could it be that Google is positioning itself to become America’s Europeana? More on this next week.