Google Books: Showing value but playing catch-up

I’ve defended Google Books in the past because I think it provides real value. To be able to search across books both in and out of print and offer links to purchase is important, and to be able to access out of print pieces of our cultural heritage on line is also valuable. In that light, I certainly think that Google’s decision to make parts of its Google Books corpus more visible, starting with the complete plays of Shakespeare, is a smart one; it provides some much needed visible value with which it can back up its arguments in favor of opt-out indexing, as Michael Arrington at TechCrunch points out.

My beef with their approach is that it doesn’t go far enough, and there are other offerings that go farther. Example: the Google Books Shakespeare page doesn’t offer an easy way to search across all the plays from the landing page. Even if you click into an individual play there is no Shakespeare-wide search. (Though I did appreciate the verisimilitude of a reader’s finger in the scan of the image on Page 6 of The Comedy of Errorshypocrite lecteur! —mon semblable!)

By contrast, the University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center has a fully searchable version of the Globe Edition (1866) online, as well as transcriptions of the First Folio and a side-by-side comparison of the two editions, plus other critical resources assembled in one place on its Shakespeare page. And you can search Shakespeare in context of the rest of the Modern English collection, or within the scope of a given play. There are even ebooks, in multiple formats, for each of the Shakespeare plays.

I certainly see the technological differences between the two offerings (heck, I helped to put the Etext Center one together). For one thing, there are very few scanned images at the Etext Center, while with Google Books you get to see every page in context. For another, the Etext Center is finite while the stated scope of Google Books is infinite. But it seems to me that the Etext Center is doing far more with its limited resources than Google has done so far with its limitless resources.

(And yes, I’m aware that Google provides an advanced book search that allows searching across all books whose author is Shakespeare. But first, doing so exposes results from prefaces, does not de-duplicate across multiple editions of the book, and otherwise returns a lot of extratextual information of dubious usefulness. And second, Google could easily have exposed this as a scoped search on the front page and chose not to do so. What here they miss, their toil should strive to mend.)