NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2010
Google Books -
Millions of Titles Available

By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)


Google needs no introduction here, as it has been discussed in many previous columns. Google is much more than the ubiquitous search engine, as it now provides mapping services, email, public domain name servers, comprehensive portable online document services, and countless other benefits in a highly competitive field. Recently, Google has been quietly entering the e-book field, where as many as a million books (mostly public domain because of expired copyrights) are currently available for free use, and countless others still under copyright will be available for a fee. Google is not alone in providing free public domain books online in a variety of formats, and it will also not be alone in providing commercial e-books for a fee. In terms of commercially available titles, Google will be a direct competitor to the likes of Amazon and Barnes and Noble, both of which already sell access to countless thousands of titles, mostly in proprietary formats only readable on their respective readers.

In 2004, Google announced the "Google Books" project, an ambitious plan to digitize and post online 15 million books within 10 years. The primary source of these books was initially libraries from all over the world, but since the announcement, many of the world's universities have volunteered their literary collections to be digitized by Google. The stated aim of Google is to preserve library books and make them universally accessible. Last November in an interview in the New York Times, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, "The vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries. Inevitably, the few remaining copies of the books are left to deteriorate slowly or are lost to fires, floods and other disasters." According to a recent story published by the BBC, Google has already digitized over 12 million titles, making it the largest repository of digitized books in the world.

While Google obviously has the technology to digitize, catalog, and make available all of the books it can process, there have been some major legal obstacles to completing the project as planned. Books published before 1923 are in the public domain as their copyrights have expired, allowing them to be freely digitized and distributed. Books published since 1923 may still be under copyright, as the copyright would run for the author's lifetime plus 70 years. Several organizations, including the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers have filed lawsuits against Google, which resulted in a settlement in 2008; the problem is that the settlement was never approved by the federal court because of issues raised by government regulators and others. Last November (2009) an amended settlement was reached, but it too is being challenged, and has not been approved by the court. Books that may still be under copyright that have already been digitized cannot be offered in their entirety by Google, but Google can include small parts of the books in its search engine. Compounding the complexity of the issue is the fact that many of the authors and their heirs have become nearly impossible to locate in order to get the requisite permissions to enable Google to post the digitized copies.

Despite the copyright limitations and legal restrictions on many of the books published since 1923, Google has compiled an impressive list of mostly older books that are available for free in digital format, most commonly in the universally readable PDF format. Books digitized and published in PDF retain their original fonts, graphics, and images exactly as published. Since PDF files can be read on almost any type of digital device, Google may have a competitive advantage over its competitors selling e-books that can only be read on their respective proprietary devices.

During my Christmas break, I stumbled on Google Books by accident while doing personal research on some historical items. I was amazed to find entire texts, complete with all of their pictures, on Google, and downloaded over two dozen entire books from Google. Most of these books were published between 1880 and 1910, and most have the stamp of the New York City Public Library emblazed on the inside of the front cover, and elsewhere in the books, making their source obvious.

I have always had a fascination for old magazines, and Google Books has helped to satiate my needs. Google Books has a large collection of old magazines, including LIFE, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and others available for viewing. I recently viewed a 1938 LIFE magazine (still under copyright, but available for viewing) which included stark images of the wars in Spain and China, historical facts that my current college students are oblivious to. It is not just the news and photos of that date that are of interest to me, as the advertisements display a microcosm of the innocence of American life that is now lost forever. I did download a PDF of the May to October 1893 edition of Popular Science (copyright expired), and found the scientific technology and writings of the day fascinating, as were the portraits of the scientists referenced; the clothing the scientists were wearing looked archaic compared to today's styles. Some of the advertisements of 1893 were most educational, as were stories about life of the day. One story about the homes displayed at the 1892 Columbian Exposition, honoring the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, described the modernistic (circa 1892) homes of the day, including a $1000 "Workingman's Model Home", two stories plus a cellar, 20x28 feet per story (560 square feet per floor), including three bedrooms. The furniture for this three bedroom home was listed at an aggregate cost of $300, and total family expenses for a year were listed as food at $200, clothing at $100, fuel at $50, and annual miscellaneous expenses of $50. Feeding a family of five was listed as 50 to 60 cents per day. We can learn a lot about history and economics by reading these antique magazines on Google Books.

Thousands of more recent books are available for free viewing on Google Books. I teach courses in Business and Economics at LIT, and Google Books lists 14,868 titles in its Business & Economics directory. Google Books also has 149,600 medical books listed, as well as 62,800 cookbooks. While many of the newer books are complete and can be viewed online, many others say, "This is a preview. The total pages displayed will be limited." One cookbook I looked at that contained that statement was the 1975 version of the "Joy of Cooking". While some pages were omitted, I was able to find a lot of interesting recipes in the 900+ pages that were available. On the edge of the browser window was a statement from Google that said, " You can order full copies of any book using the "Get this book" links to the side of the preview page." Along with the 481,600 books available in the "Law" category, 60,566 under "Humor, and 161,600 under "Travel", as well as the dozens of other categories, anyone should be able to find a huge selection of books of interest.

Being Google, the entire library of millions of titles is fully searchable, and both the directory and the search results can be sorted into those titles that are either public domain (mostly downloadable as a PDF file), full view, and limited view. Google has provided an excellent resource for readers of all ages. The selection of books currently available is outstanding, and according to some published resources, only makes up about 30% of all of the titles that Google has scanned because of unresolved copyright issues. Once the final legal issues are resolved, the selection of titles should be much bigger. I eagerly look forward to what else might become available from books.google.com.

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