Thursday, November 08, 2007

Too much anarchism at Google Books?

Curiouser and curiouser. While doing some research on early appearances of the word "anarchism," prior to 1870, I ran across numerous hits on Google Books for very early texts, many of them in French. Now, given the proof-reading and quality control issues I've blogged about before, it wasn't out of the question that perhaps I was seeing some early use of the French word anarchisme, together with some sloppy OCR work, in, for example, Charles Fourier's Traité de l'association domestique-agricole. But the search engine at Google Books informed me that the word anarchism appeared on thirty different pages in that particular work! That's hardly the sort of thing that previous historians, or my own previous searches would have missed. Scanning the search results a bit more, I satisfied myself pretty quickly that Saint-Simon had not used the English word anarchism hundreds of times, nor had Thomas More used it repeatedly in his Utopia. I did find a very nice 1828 dictionary entry which simply defined anarchism as "confusion." And I found this page. Hmmm. Google Books now makes plain text available for its page images, though its downloadable pdfs are not indexed to the text. I had assumed that this text was what I was searching through.
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Apparently not. I considered the keywords assigned to each book, or keywords embedded in the source. Whatever my searches are bringing up are not at a level accessible to me. OCLC records don't turn up any of the non-anarchist texts, so it is unlikely that these are keywords imported from a MARC record or other existing metadata. The contributing library does not associate the Traité with anarchism in its records.

Add another mystery to add to those surrounding Google Books. Hundreds of pages keyed to the word anarchism somehow, but without anarchist content. The result, of course, is to make searching for actual instances of the word a real chore. A digital archive of the size of Google Books ought to give anyone with a modicum of research skill the ability to easily outdo the Oxford English Dictionary staff, when it comes to word origins and early uses. Instead, we get GIGO.

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