Saturday, March 06, 2010

The World At Your Fingertips

In his classic book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", Douglas Adams imagined a reference source that would serve as "the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom." Could Google be fulfilling that vision?

I ask not because of the ubiquitous role that their search engine plays in everyday life, but because of their efforts to put books, magazines, and newspapers online and make them freely accessible.

Just this week, they've gone live with the entire archives of Popular Science... every page from 137 years of the magazine. It's fascinating to see how the publication chronicled the work of the Wright brothers, the beginning of the personal computer era, or even less mainstream advances such as the 1933 robot cow.

In November 2008, I wrote about Google's efforts to put the photographic archives of Life Magazine online, including thousands of images that had never been published before. They also have the entire run of Baseball Digest. You can either browse through it issue by issue, or run a search query to find articles that interest you. With the touch of a button, I found a 1977 article about Cesar Geronimo, one of my favorite players when I was a kid.

Of course, Google also has undertaken the task of scanning thousands of older books that are out of print. Books like the Reach Baseball guides or Walter Camp's football books from the turn of the century are a valuable resource for researchers, but often too rare to be affordable and too fragile to be put into circulation at the libraries that own them.

Google has also worked with publishers to put the full text of more recent books online, turning your computer into a virtual library. You can click right now and not only start reading great books like Moneyball, The Numbers Game, and When Pride Still Mattered -- but you can search through the text to read what each author has to say about a particular subject.

Other publishers have put their archives online. Some, like the New York Times, ask you to pay for that access, while others, like Time Magazine, offer it for free. But Google is making quantum leaps with their work. There has never been so much information so readily available, and the body of published material online is only going to grow.