Google, Gutenberg & Research

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Just how exciting is all the hype about Google’s venture into online books? Is it really the dawn of a new era?

What seems to be missing from all the journalistic screaming is the fact that huge numbers of books and other materials have been available online for some time now. Some of my favourites:

Spell to kvell

But how useful is it to have all these texts, if you can’t spell, type, research, filter, or evaluate? A classic example of this is the difference that accents & diacritical marks make on searching. In a recent search for information on the lovely Daria Klimentova, I decided to see what came up if I spelt her name with the proper Czech accents, i.e. Daria Klimentová. As I suspected, a totally different set of pages, including an encyclopedia entry on Daria from the beautifully designed and webbified ?eský hudební slovník osob a institucí (Czech Musical Dictionary of People & Institutions) from the – as their logo has it – Universitas Masarykiana Brunensis, the Masaryk University in Brno, another beautifully designed site. How would I know that Brunensis was Latin for ‘of Brno’, unless I had a smattering of Latin grammar, geography and the metathesis of medial liquid diphthongs in Slavic languages?

A free lunch?
And in the end, apart from the limitations of Google’s offerings imposed by the humanoids that read the stuff, what will or what can Google actually deliver? Are all those academic publishers who have invested thousands on online journal subscription services suddenly going to stop charging between $10 – $25 dollars an article, or forget about charging universities an institutional rate based on the number of enrolled students?

What’s on the menu, then?
And what of a field like mine, which involves a notation/recording system other than text? As I wrote in another weblog entry, it’s darned difficult to find some of Czerny’s lesser-known works, unless you can be bothered to go to a library, request them from the stack service and search through almost a thousand pages by hand. Similarly, when I tried to get hold of a copy of Tchaikovsky’s 50 Russian Folksongs for piano duet by conventional means, I found that Peters Edition still publish them, but – inexplicably – only 36 of the original 50, and with the titles only in German translation – which is no use at all if you want to cross-reference collections.

I found the full set with the original titles by looking through 60+ volumes of the complete works of Tchaikovsky at the University of London library. I only knew they were there because I saw them on the shelves as I was leaving, having failed to find them in the catalogue ; I only knew when I had found them because I read Russian and music notation.

My point? It takes minutes to flick through hundreds of pages of a physical book, but – even with broadband – hours to do the same online. Catalogues, even in University libraries, are unreliable and inaccurate, prone as they are to the errors and limitations of the person who inputs the records. Materials for study are in multiple languages, formats and notation systems, which you have to know and understand if you want to do anything more than read text in English.

Scholarship? Не пудри мне мозги!”
My rant is about the suffocating domination of English texts in what laughably passes as ‘scholarship’, particularly in my own field, and an insidious acceptance in some areas of Anglo-American academia that this is OK. By contrast, in Central & Eastern Europe, a knowledge of five European languages is not uncommon, and some of the people I studied with in Croatia had a reading knowledge of 12 languages at undergraduate level. A friend in Prague who speaks fluent English, German, Czech, Italian and French had her PhD dissertation proposal thrown out by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague because she wanted to look at the Tchaikovsky ballets, but didn’t speak Russian, and would therefore not have access to the relevant texts. You can guess where she went instead, of course.

Information vs. Intelligence
I’ve been using the net for nearly 10 years, and I still find that having billions of documents available online is no more useful than having a billion pounds in Albanian lek when you need to feed a parking meter, unless you have some knowledge and understanding about the subject in your head, critical skills, advanced literacy skills, advanced IT skills and a few languages: information does not equal intelligence.

The congress of libraries
But none of this is any use unless you have intellectual curiosity, determination and patience. Ironically, it seems to me that high information at high speed kills off the very passion for knowledge that is needed to process and use it. Furthermore, the thing that used to be at the heart of academic life – dialogue, debate, congress, conference – is also at risk. Webchat and video-conferencing are no substitute for real dialogue. It’s great that you can access libraries online without moving from your seat, but not great if this becomes a substitute for travel and knowledge of an experiential kind.

Study? No thanks
‘Study’ is becoming as boring as it sounds – you, a computer terminal and a lot of words on a screen. I hope I am not still marking papers when essays become little more than a newsfeed from a bunch of anglophone websites, written by students who’ve never had the opportunity to get drunk, travel or sleep with each other, and thus are unable to put the subject, themselves and the whole notion of ‘study’ in perspective.

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