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Nothing Worthwhile Published Before 1776?

March 14, 2009
New York, N.Y.

Google Book Search has always had a problem with publication dates. (So has most of the rest of the Internet, by the way.) But a recent "enhancement" to the Advanced Book Search page has made the situation even worse.

Let's review the existing date-related problems in Google Book Search so we can put the new problem into perspective:

Existing Problem No. 1: Incorrect Dates

The first big problem is that many items in Google Book Search are dated incorrectly. It's hard to estimate what percentage, and the problem definitely seems worse for periodicals, but it's easy to uncover a few: For example, try a search for "Hillary Rodham Clinton" for publications prior to 1975 (the year she was married). I think we can all agree such a search shouldn't turn up 84 hits.

Existing Problem No. 2: No Sort-by-Date

On the page with the search results, it would be so so nice to have a Sort-by-Date option, and by "nice" I mean pretty much "indispensble." If you are searching for a particular edition of a book, or a particular issue of a periodical, this feature would make the job much easier than it is now.

Existing Problem No. 3: The "More editions" Link

Because there's no Sort-by-Date feature, if you are searching for a particular edition of a book, or a particular issue of a periodical, then to avoid insanity you need to filter your search results by specifying a range of dates. However, as anybody who has used Google Book Search knows, very often particular hits are accompanied by a "More editions" link. This link brings up additional pages that show books and periodicals with the same title and author, but not filtered by the date range, or any other search criteria. Sometimes — particularly for periodicals and books published in many editions — there can be pages and pages of these other editions with no filtering and no sorting.

Google Book Search has no real concept of an "edition," and definitely no concept that books can be published in multiple volumes, and it is currently very far away from any rational listing of periodicals, so this "More editions" feature simply makes everything much worse than it needs to be. I wish I could turn it off.

New Problem: Year One is Apparently 1776

Now for the new problem: To limit a search to a particular range of dates, there is now a new drop-down list. The list begins with the arbitrary date of 1776, apparently under the assumption that no-one could possibly be interested in a book published prior to the American Revolution.

Yesterday I wanted to check the availibility of a book first published in 1691. I performed the search without date filtering and saw a lot of editions published in the mid-18th century. I wanted to limit the list to a very early edition, which (given the all the other limitations I've cited) would normally be done by filtering the search to a date range of (let's say) 1690 through 1710. But that is no longer possible. (Or it might be if I can figure out the search string that used to be generated for the old date range logic.)

I probably use Google Book Search much more than the average person. It's become an extremely important reference tool. But the design of the thing remains so idiotic that I'm frustrated every time I use it. It's been well over a year since I posted one, two, three, four, five blog entries with (generally) constructive criticisms, and as far as I'm aware, there hasn't even been an acknowledgment that anything is wrong, and the Inside Google Book Search blog remains a repository of "happy news" and corporate BS where no actual issues are ever addressed.

Perhaps it's time for Google to admit defeat and turn over this collection to someone who actually knows how to organize it and make it properly accessible.


Depending on what your book search needs are, you might find helpful. It is run by librarians who are generally quite careful about bibliographic matters. It does have issues with multiple volumes, but it has an excellent understanding of editions.

— Andrew, Sat, 14 Mar 2009 19:16:03 -0400 (EDT)

WorldCat and Google Book Search really perform two different functions. WorldCat is a consolidation of the catalogs of libraries from around the world; Google Book Search is — or should be — a virtual library where many books are actually accessible, and therefore, where contents can be searched. As a resident of New York City, I have much less use for WorldCat because I generally access CATNYP (the CATalog of the NY Public research libraries) and then walk up to the Humanities library (the one with the lions out front) or SIBL to look at the book. Google Book Search has promised that I can do that from my desk at home (at least for books no longer in copyright) but it has failed to provide rudimentary browsing or searching features. — Charles

A cogent analysis. For the moment, however, at least for the work I do, all is carping at details if they continue to limit searches to dates greater than 1775. Pre-1776 material is still in the system. Search, for example, on "Maison Rustique." What can be done? Not only is this a catastrophe for those of us who have come to depend on this service, it seems embarrassing, as an American, to have Google choose 1776 as the arbitrary cutoff for book searches. That does Google no good. But, I digress. My question is, what can we do? How can we contact someone in a position at Google to talk about this?

I have access to EEBO (Early English Books Online), ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collection Online), and the Goldsmiths'-Kress collection, The Making of the Modern World. It has previously crossed my mind when encountering books on Google Books that have been scanned but are not available as full view texts that Google may have come under legal pressure from Gale Research, the owner of ECCO and Goldsmiths'-Kress collection. This, however, is just my attempt to explain to myself what I see. Do you actually know why so many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century titles are not available for full view?

William Rubel, Thu, 19 Mar 2009 04:47:33 -0400 (EDT)

Here is Google's preliminary response to my complaint:

    Hello William,

    Thanks for taking the time to offer us this feedback regarding the recent
    change made to the date fields under Advanced Search. I've passed your
    feedback along to the rest of the team for review.

    In the meantime though a simple workaround to this is if you look at the
    URL string from doing an advanced search you can see how to modify the
    search with any dates you want:


    as_minm_is: starting month
    as_miny_is: starting year
    as_maxm_is: ending month
    as_maxy_Is: ending year

    We encourage you to continue to let us know how we can improve Google Book
    Search. This is still a young program, so many new features are under
    consideration and your feedback is very helpful.

    The Google Book Search Team

I won't include my response. But I do not find that their workaround works. They are referring here to the URL, not the search box. The easiest way to test the proposed workaround is to do an advanced search just asking for books within the default date range of 01 2009 to 12 2009. Then, go into the URL and alter the first 2009 to 1700 and the ending date to 1800. When I do this no books come up.

I then tried the pull down menus in the advanced search box and selected 1776 to 1800. No books. 1850 to 1875. No books.

My guess is that when Google doesn't know the publishing month that no month is entered in the database table (it is inherently bad form to put bad data into a database table) but the URL string is looking for a number between 01 and 12 in the month field and so fails when there is no publishing month.

Hopefully, Google will put back the old interface -- so much better for so many reasons -- but I would trust that they will quickly resole what seems to be a programming error with books published for which they don't know the publication month.

All my best,

— William Rubel, Fri, 20 Mar 2009 03:52:35 -0400 (EDT)

Actually, it turns out the previous search language for dates still works. Thus, in the search box type "meteil" date:1700-1800 and you got the pre 1776 books, too.

This way of searching thus becomes an undocumented feature -- but hopefully it will be made more clear to everyone. When using the drop down menus on the advanced search screen for date selections the date: language does not show up in the search box -- only in the URL.

— William Rubel, Fri, 20 Mar 2009 15:00:13 -0400 (EDT)

I'm catching up on my RSS feeds. Just the mention of Google Books makes me see red.

My book, "Normal Eating for Normal Weight", has been suck in "Processing" mode since March. It's supposed to take just a couple days to go live. For months they stonewalled me and told me to be patient. Finally they admitted they have a little problem: "...our specialists found that your book may be affected by a technical issue that's preventing many books in the program from going live."

Now this REALLY IRRITATES me, because it means my book doesn't get this additional and useful listing in the Google search engine. If you search on "Normal Eating", competitors books come up, but not mine.

It's been two weeks since my contact at Google finally admitted it was a bug, but there is still no progress. I'm afraid it won't ever go live. I'm very frustrated.

Sheryl Canter, Sat, 18 Jul 2009 10:15:31 -0400 (EDT)

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