Google Books & its discontents

2011 October 10
"Let Us Clasp Hands over the Bloody Chasm."

International copyright law isn't quite as pointy as this, but the effect is similar. (Image credit: Cornell University Library/Flickr Commons)

The comments on my previous post about Google Books research hacks and further conversation on Twitter revealed an aspect of historians’ evolving digital practices that I hadn’t known before.

Historians around the world can see different things in major digitized-books collections depending on the place where they’re working. Which open-access digital collections they use depend on a combination of their own scholarly interests and the vagaries of international copyright law.From Australia, Brett Holman pointed out that for him, every US government document I’d linked to on on GBooks was snippet-view-only– even the ones that are public domain in the US. Further investigation revealed that HathiTrust would show more of those to him. 1

Brett studies the 20th century (aviation), so early-20th-century US government documents could conceivably be important to his practice as a historian. But from a scholarly perspective, it’s a bit absurd: Here’s this amazing global information network that can’t deliver US government documents— some of the least copyright-restricted print material in the world— to him… for legal reasons.2

From Germany, Katrina Gulliver reported that she also saw snippet-view-only for those public-domain-in-the-US government documents on Google Books. But Katrina works mostly on the 19th century, and so her issues are different. She wrote:

I got full view on Hathi Trust (I haven't used that site before).

@katrinagulliver: Most of the stuff I'm looking for on Gbooks is pre-1900. I use that or archive.org without problems. // @cliotropic: Interesting. For historians, just a few decades to the side in our interests changes the utility of GBooks dramatically. // @katrinagulliver: totally. I get a lot out of individual libraries' digitisation projects too; obviously for later stuff that's not an option.

So, readers, I’m curious:

  • What do you work on (place and time period), where do you work from (geographically), and what openly-accessible digital collections do you find most useful?
  • What digital collections do you know of that contain published materials you need that are out-of-copyright or public-domain in their country of publication, but copyright-restricted in the country where you primarily work? Are there other digital collections that make those same materials accessible to you?
  • If you can’t get online access to these digital materials from the country where you work, how do you work around the problem? (“Interlibrary loan of print materials” and “travel to that country” are viable answers. I’m trying to understand how commonly we resort to samizdata, and how often we relocate media or ourselves because we can’t move bits.)

I’d welcome blog posts on this from others as well; if you write one, please comment below and link to it.

  1. Yet another reason to use HathiTrust, if you weren’t convinced already. It’s most of the same items as Google Books, meant for scholarly use, with much better metadata and a maintenance crew who actually respond to error reports.
  2. The internet being what it is, I’m sure Brett could just ask a US-based scholar to download such an item and send it to him. Nearly every historian I know of has used or created some form of samizdata in the course of their research. Sometimes this is a trivial copyright circumvention. Other times, it’s finding something in the archives and thinking, “Oh, I’ve got a colleague who would love to see this,” and snapping some extra “personal use” photos. The “personal use only” agreements we sign for archival photography often require that we not redistribute our images for any reason. On the other hand, there are very few archival libraries that will actually complain about their collections being cited by historians who haven’t been there in person. (Unless the library requires permission to cite the collection in question, in which case one finds oneself writing a very delicately worded email to an archivist.)
2 Responses
  1. Howell Harris permalink
    October 22, 2011

    I’m surprised that you don’t suggest to overseas users the obvious answer — i.e. use a US-based public proxy server to access material that is Full View in the US but Snippet where they live. That’s for stuff that can’t be accessed via Internet Archive or Hathi Trust or otherwise.

  2. Joshua permalink
    November 17, 2011

    Thanks for your recommendation of HathiTrust. I have been looking for older copies of the CIA’s World Factbook and doing some research on impeachment. I have been to GBooks and these books are locked or in snippet view. While I can understand why Google has be strict on copyright, I think their treatment of US Gov works is _too_ strict. Sometimes I ask myself if we are losing our history though over-zealous enforcement of copyright.

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