Charles Petzold

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.