Google Books and Historical Research

I am frequently surprised by how many historians are only dimly aware of Google Books and are not aware of how useful it can be for certain types of work.

I have been working on a dissertation on American intelligence during World War I.  The introductory part of this work extends some thirty years back from World War I.  I have been fortunate that pretty much everything published during the period that I am interested in is now in the public domain.  This means, in most cases, that they are available in full-text on Google Books.  In such cases, one can read them online or download them in PDF form, though the latter forfeits the text search ability.

That has had two important implications for my work.

  • Because Google Books can search directly into the text of a book (even a book not in the public domain), I have been able to find sources that I would never have thought to look for.  In particular, memoirs and Government documents have come to light this way.
  • When I want to consult Lewal’s Tactique des Renseignement at 3AM (yeah, I know, what of it?) I can do so immediately.

Speaking more broadly, Google Books has some other wonderful advantages to the military historian.

  • If you want to consult the specific edition of Jomini, for instance, that General Pershing might have read, you can do it instantly without having to buy an expensive used copy or search at two or three of your nearest research libraries.
  • One can often track down the less well known and shorterworks of famous authors.  Here, for instance, is an article on the Spanish Armada written by Alfred Thayer Mahan and published in Century magazine in 1898.

Finally, it seems to me that Google Books has a tremendous ability to help us (re)discover lost facts.  For instance, some time back I became interested in the age of the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  A few minutes work on Google Books looking at dictionaries of common expressions gave me the precise date that everyone seemed to agree represented the first appearance of this expression.  A few more minutes proved these dictionaries wrong by quite a number of years.  Is the natal date of this expression important?  No.  Not at all.  But what other bits of knowledge that might actually mean something are out there waiting to be found?

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 2:26 AM  Comments (1)  

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  1. I fully concur. Google Books has been a gold mine for my Civil War era research, because so many primary sources are in the public domain. And you’re exactly right about the serendipity aspect – finding sources you never knew existed (and would be unlikely ever to find by conventional research methods).

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