Internet Dating

Ouch!  The new issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a brutal critique of Google's controversial online library project, less because of its oft-criticized intellectual property grab than for its incredibly shabby fact-checking.  A quick look at some of the more obvious gaffes reporter Geoffrey Nunberg discovered:

To take Google's word for it, 1899 was a literary annus mirabilis, which saw the publication of Raymond Chandler's Killer in the Rain, The Portable Dorothy Parker, André Malraux's La Condition Humaine, Stephen King's Christine, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Raymond Williams's Culture and Society 1780-1950, and Robert Shelton's biography of Bob Dylan, to name just a few. And while there may be particular reasons why 1899 comes up so often, such misdatings are spread out across the centuries. A book on Peter F. Drucker is dated 1905, four years before the management consultant was even born; a book of Virginia Woolf's letters is dated 1900, when she would have been 8 years old. Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities is dated 1888, and an edition of Henry James's What Maisie Knew is dated 1848.


Of course, there are bound to be occasional howlers in a corpus as extensive as Google's book search, but these errors are endemic. A search on "Internet" in books published before 1950 produces 527 results; "Medicare" for the same period gets almost 1,600. Or you can simply enter the names of famous writers or public figures and restrict your search to works published before the year of their birth. "Charles Dickens" turns up 182 results for publications before 1812, the vast majority of them referring to the writer. The same type of search turns up 81 hits for Rudyard Kipling, 115 for Greta Garbo, 325 for Woody Allen, and 29 for Barack Obama. (Or maybe that was another Barack Obama.)

Anyone who has ever worked in publishing or historical research knows the curse that is shabby dating; such mistakes tend to get repeated ad nauseam, particularly in the horizontally-leveraged Internet age.  Some day a blissfully ignorant graduate student will cite James' What Maisie Knew as having been written halfway through the 19th century, and that mistake will be cited and repeated and recorded as fact over and over again.  The only mistake that makes any sense is dating Robert Shelton's biography of Bob Dylan as 1899, because Dylan does kind of look like he might be over a century old. 

Read the whole article here.

Jim Keane, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 1 month ago
I read the original article and found it fascinating, since I've been using the Google library extensively for a research project this year.  Yes, indeed, the metadata can be misleading (though as a percentage of total entries, I'm not sure it's worse than many libraries).  But hopefully scholars are careful - I've been checking dates against those that appear in the manuscript, etc, and ordering copies when available from other sources.  That said, the ability to search such a broad array of sources has been invaluable.
And even print is not immune to poor metadata, as I learned to my chagrin in grad school.  I pulled a paper based on the title and abstract, and included it (and the results quoted therein) in a review of the literature. When I presented it at the group research meeting, my faculty advisor asked if I'd read the whole paper.  I confessed I had not - he suggested I might want to.  The text of the paper did not match the abstract, the paper had been extensively revised, but the "metadata" of title and abstract had not been correct to match the new version.
As always, caveat emptor or perhaps in this case, caveat scholar!


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