How Google Rediscovered the 19th Century

Around 2008, I began to notice an interesting fact: Google Books was reshaping the way I did research. I was on sabbatical and had more time than usual to pursue various projects. Like most historians, I went to libraries and archives in search of paper evidence, but I also delighted in digital discoveries, happily downloading my best finds. At the end of that year, I left my sabbatical office carrying a computer filled with the virtual books that are rapidly becoming the bread and butter of teaching and scholarship.

Several years later, the novelty has worn off. Much has been said about the pros and cons of Google Books, and I have no desire to add to the chorus of reflections about its effect on authorship, intellectual property, copyright, or scholarly publishing. Instead, I wish to focus on one key accomplishment: the role of the digital archive in the rediscovery of the 19th century.

Any reader who has done a project that is historical in nature, regardless of discipline, will recognize the truth of that observation. Thanks to Google, 21st-century scholars are becoming far more accustomed to reading 19th-century books, simply because, being out of copyright, they are online. I am not referring to the classics—Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867-94), or Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)—that we keep at the center of various disciplines. Yet we now read them in a landscape filled with the obscure work of their less-well-known contemporaries. The digitization of the long 19th century (materials published between the late 18th and early 20th centuries) has made accessible and searchable scholarly work that has been neglected because it was considered too dated and too unreliable.  It was the last thing many of us looked for in the library.

This rediscovery of the 19th century as an open-source reading experience is accompanied by a subtle appreciation of the era’s intellectual merits. Consider the quantity of material—obscure novels, local histories, antique catalogs, minor journals, a sea of biographies, and those vast and terrifyingly erudite bibliographies that were a specialty of that age of scholarship.

Work that fails to enter a canon—literary, historical, or otherwise—tends to languish on the dustier shelves of college libraries. Digitization allows a new generation of scholars to look at them with fresh regard. This represents a significant change in the way we think about scholarship. Google Books is a kind of Victorian portal that takes me into a mare magnum of out-of-print authors, many of whom helped launch disciplines. Or who wrote essays, novels, and histories that did not transcend their time. Or who anonymously produced the paperwork of emerging bureaucracies, organizations, and businesses that, because printed, has been scanned and, because scanned, is now available.

I am not a scholar of the 19th century but have found its digitization to be one of the most fascinating new resource for understanding the centuries that precede it.

It is not by chance that the 19th century gave birth to projects such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is the tip of an iceberg of genteel scholars, male and female, who had the time and resources to dig through vast mounds of material and make something of it. Those researchers lived in closer chronological proximity to their subjects than we do; they often worked amid the dimly lit bookshelves and attics of private homes. As a result, their experience of a historical subject captures a sense of intimacy that might otherwise be lost.

This point is equally true for 19th-century fiction, which was strongly historical in its sensibilities. Great novelists such as Germaine de Staël, Alessandro Manzoni, and George Eliot participated in a vast historicizing impulse that is becoming a searchable documentary record as larger quantities of the period’s printed matter are vacuumed up for public consumption.

Eliot’s unforgettable account in Middlemarch of the monomaniacal provincial scholar Edward Casaubon, toiling away at Key to All Mythologies, was only thinly veiled fiction. It was an age in which many modern scholarly practices, government agencies, and cultural institutions took shape. Reading the 19th century online allows us to observe more closely the migration of texts and objects—and the histories that were written from them—out of their original settings and into modern depositories of knowledge.

We now have access to one of the most valuable tools of archival and bibliographic research: the 19th-century catalog. It often contains precious annotations of the process by which living artifacts become a historical record—the quirky details that tend to be lost in modern information systems, which strip away the idiosyncrasies of personalized description in favor standardized data. In a way, the experience of using Google to access the 19th century has enriched our ability to work in the physical archives and libraries that many of us still consider to be the epicenter of scholarship. I am constantly moving between my Victorian online experience and the far richer evidence available at some brick-and-mortar libraries.

At the end of my sabbatical, five years ago, I wrote an essay in which half of the research came from digital archives (not only Google, of course). I did this partly to experiment with a new research tool but largely because (with patience for the detritus that clutters the Web) my queries for keywords and phrases proved fruitful.  It brought the 19th and early 20th centuries into focus as an interesting and important coda to a study of an early modern topic.

I have come to see Google Books as a place of scholarly afterlives, where forgotten authors and discarded projects are enjoying a certain reincarnation. To be sure, this kind of rediscovery promises no individual fame. Casaubon is still a provincial scholar writing desultory prose, and there are thousands more like him who achieved a kind of publishable mediocrity. Yet I like to think that we may be on the verge of a collective acknowledgment that they, too, deserve a place in our 21st-century libraries.

When we read the past, we acknowledge that we stand not only, as Isaac Newton put it, on the shoulders of giants, but also on those of scholars of smaller stature who were no less passionate about their subjects and determined in their own way to contribute to the intellectual conversation. The 12th-century philosopher and educator Bernard of Chartres is said to have observed that we are all dwarfs when we attempt to climb atop gargantuan flesh. I am glad to have met more of them online, and to have profited from their vantage point.

Paula Findlen is a professor of history at Stanford University.

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