Is Google Books as dangerous as Wikipedia? many academics, Wikipedia is a large sounding bell! It indicates poor researching techniques (similarly to using Encyclopaedia Britannica in the past) … although many of us would argue that it’s at least a good starting point, pointing to other materials. This week, there are concerns raised about the metadata used in Google books, and how that may be affecting researchers:

Two years ago, Google Books was becoming the world’s largest digital library and, with an effective monopoly, seemed “almost certain to be the last one”.

The tragedy for scholars was that Google Books’ metadata – which allow users to search the catalogue – were “a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess”.

Such was the argument made in 2009 by Geoffrey Nunberg, adjunct full professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

He went on to have a good deal of fun with the many strange anomalies: 115 hits for Greta Garbo and 325 for Woody Allen in books said to date from before they were born; editions of Jane Eyre classified under history or antiques and collectibles; Sigmund Freud listed as an author of a guide to an internet interface.

There was even a case of an 1890 guidebook assigned to 1774 because it happened to open with an advertisement for a shirt manufacturer founded in that year.

All this made Google Books’ search facility a very dangerous tool for serious researchers looking to track, for example, the way a particular word has changed its meaning over time.

In response to Professor Nunberg’s critique, Google offered to correct any errors that were brought to its attention. But while this process has ironed out specific glitches in the intervening years, Professor Nunberg does not believe it has made a fundamental difference.

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