The face of library service is undergoing a great change. Once we were seen as a repository of books. That was pretty much the sum of it. I’m not saying that was an accurate perception, since for as long as I have worked in libraries (and that is a long, long time) we have also been the intermediaries between customers and the information contained in those books. But books themselves are changing. They are no longer confined to their old fashioned paper format – they have broken free of the walls of the library and are finding a new home on the internet. One of the projects that is enabling this is the Google Books project. Google is working with some major libraries and also some partners to provide previews, and in some cases, complete text, of many books.
How it works is quite simple. You search, either through the regular Google search or through the more specific Google Books search for a name or a phrase. If that search term shows up in any of the scanned books, you will see a preview of the part of the book that contains the term. If the book is in the public domain, the whole text will appear as a pdf for reading or download. I have found this to be a real boon to my research.
What this has allowed me to do is to find stuff I wouldn’t have even known enough to look for. For example, I knew that my great-grandfather had worked on the Kettle Valley Railway but I didn’t know that he was the Chairman of the Locomotive Engineers Union for that railway until I found his name in a 1927 listing of labour organizations in Canada. I also didn’t know that my great uncle Claude, who eventually moved to Montana, ran a movie theatre in the billiard hall in Phoenix, BC in 1911. I found that juicy little bit of information in the preview of Ghost towns and mining camps of the Boundary Country by Garnet Basque. Using that, I was able to find Uncle Claude, his last name badly mis-transcribed and therefore not showing up in online searches, in the 1911 Canadian census, just where he was supposed to be, in Phoenix BC, living with his partner in the theatre business.
While it is great if the whole book is available, it is also just fine if it is not. Google Books gives great citations so that it is easy to find the book and request it, or a copy of the pertinent information, through interlibrary loans with your local library. In fact, there are links on the right side of the page to help you find it either through a book seller or at a library. (Turns out the U of C has the list of labour unions in which my great-grandfather appears, and Calgary Public Library – yay, has the ghost town book!)
So while digitization is not without its drawbacks and its need for adaptation, it is a great thing for researchers, especially those of us who are enamoured of the miniscule and unremarked details of the lives of our ancestors. These details could have gone unnoticed forever, unless we stumbled on them by chance. Now, the only drawback is that we can end up with WAY too much stuff for our family histories – we’re going to have to publish multivolume sets!
At the Summit of the Rockies
Postcards from the Past, PC 424