The Twentieth Century and the lesson about Google Books

I’ve been thinking a little more about my experience with the recent incident involving Le Vingtième Siècle and the role of Google Books.

My first reflex a few weeks ago when I wanted to find the work was to search for it in Google Books. In fact, Google Books lists six editions of the work, and although Google has apparently scanned one of the 1893 editions, the full text is not available online. I find it curious that a text from 1893 would not be available in full. More on that below.

Google lists five sellers who supposedly have the book: AbeBooks, Alibris, QOOP, Amazon, and Google Product Search, but actually Google doesn’t even know if they have it, you have to check the links yourself. In this case, of those five, none of them seem to actually have Le Vingtième Siècle, although it’s difficult to tell without more searching since the search query formatted by Google doesn’t work with the international alphabet on all the sites. Alibris does appear to have a related work by Robida with a similar name, but not Le Vingtième Siècle.

When I tried the query from France, Google Books also listed a handful of French sellers. appears to have the book in the catalog but says it isn’t available. Only Librarie Dialogues seems to have it available for sale and shipping.

Google Books also purports to tell you where you can find the work in a library. Clicking on the link takes you to WorldCat. Searching in France, for example, gives 12 libraries holding a copy. Interestingly, all 12 listings are for holdings of the printed work. Although WordCat knows that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France holds an ebook copy, you have to search for it separately because it doesn’t turn up when you follow Google’s “Find in a Library” search link.

Finally, to top it all off, WordCat doesn’t help you much either, because the ebook entry details point right back to Google Books, which doesn’t have any full text if you remember, and not, as one might expect to Gallica.

In fact, as far as I can tell Google Books doesn’t seem to be interested in letting you know where you can find the work in full online, perhaps because there are more recent editions or English translations they’d rather see you purchase. However, Google’s other search products will help you find a copy online. A Google web search will pull in a link within the first few pages that tells you the book is available at the BnF online site Gallica. But Google Books either doesn’t know that or won’t tell you. Actually, it’s probably the former. Google is only indexing on search terms, which are words, and unlike semantic search solutions, it doesn’t understand the meaning of the information in the results it finds.

[Update Nov. 9th, 2010: Actually this was an error on my part; it’s worse than I thought. A Google search will not return a link within the first 10 pages–I did not search farther than that–that tells you that Le Vingtième Siècle is available on You have to search within the results and click on a linked page to find it so quickly. Eric was right to point this out in the comments below. Some readers may not fully appreciate that the order of pages returned in a Google search result may be different for each user: my first n pages and your first m pages may be not be the same. So in fact, finding the online versions of this book through Google requires more work than I initially indicated!]

Google Scholar gives you a link to a pdf version in the first result (labeled [BOOK] oddly enough). Unfortunately the link is broken, but Google Books doesn’t even list it. (Mike Cane found the correct link, by the way.)

So despite all the recurring press about Google’s lofty ambition to “organize all the world’s information” and allow people to do research they couldn’t do before,  Google Books doesn’t actually seem to be intended to help regular people find online copies of books that are available elsewhere. In stark contrast to Google’s other search products, that do seem to be about helping people find information online, Google Books seems geared to helping you find the book if it’s available either from Google or from a seller they link to.

This is just one example, but it’s one among many, that makes it hard to come to any  conclusion other than that Google’s objective is to make money selling books, not to provide some benevolent legacy to mankind by making knowledge available. According to this article in PC World, Google’s objective could be to position itself as seller of over 100 million books, and that’s a treasure large enough for them to make sure that Google Books Search doesn’t undermine it.

Finally, this conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since others have pointed out Google’s less than noble ambitions time and time again. However, this example provides some details that strongly corroborate this interpretation.

Update Nov. 9th, 2010: As suggested by Eric Rumsey, here are the links to the resources cited above:

As far as I can tell, there are two online sources where you can find Le Vingtième Siècle. At Gallica, where you can find it as an image as well as plain text, and at this link found by Mike Cane after some searching.

You can find the broken link reference to the BOOK in pdf form shown above here at Google Scholar.

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6 Responses to The Twentieth Century and the lesson about Google Books

  1. Eric Rumsey says:

    Interesting example – It would be helpful if you could provide links to the searches you cite, and the book in Gallica — For example:
    “A Google web search will pull in a link within the first few pages that tells you the book is available at the BnF online site Gallica …”

    • laura says:

      Thanks, Eric. You make a good point.

      In going back through to find the links, I discovered that I made a mistake in the original post. Finding this book online is harder than I indicated, and definitely harder than it ought to be using Google!

      I’ve updated the text and added links to the online works.

  2. Eric Rumsey says:

    Laura, Thanks for the quick changes.

    Have you thought of writing a post comparing Gallica and Google Books, and detailing how Google Web and Google Book Searches find individual book titles in each? — I think most US readers are as uninformed about Gallica as I am. I wrote something like that on Google Books and Internet Archive, and was surprised to find how prominently Google ranks IA titles.

    As you’ll note in my article, I have specific links for all searches, and search results — The article was written about a month ago, and I can see by going back to the search links now that the results in most cases are not the same as then, but there’s still a fair degree of consistency.

    • laura says:

      That’s an interesting idea I hadn’t thought of. I’m not really an expert on either Gallica or Google Books, but Gallica is a library, so it might not be a fair comparison since Google is not.

      Actually to be fair to Google, I realize that in searching for a French language book on I’m probably not getting optimal results. I do this all the time since Google is happy to return pages in many languages, and I often have the impression I get better results on the English site than on

      Your article was interesting, and I was amazed at the difference in search results when I clicked on your links. There are two dimensions there: time and personalization. It’s a bit disconcerting to think that something you find today might be difficult to find tomorrow, not to mention that something you find today might be less findable for me. Again, I’m not sure most people take the measure of that.

      You’ve given me another idea here, and I’m going to try a few experiments.

  3. Beautifully written report! Doing research on literature of the 19th century is usually rather easy, because of the high standards book publishing, the libraries and cataloguing had achieved. Most European nations had highly professional national libraries which collected deposit copies with great care and made their collections accessible through meticulously printed catalogues. So, today, when doing your research in any huge library you will usually find what you look for rather quickly. Yet, nothing is the same when you try to do your research online. Information there often stays fragmentary and unreliable as far as historical issues are concerned. How comes? Are computer nerds at odds with history nerds?

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