For true bibliophiles an e-book will never have the same allure as a physically printed and bound book, one that can be placed on a real life bookshelf as part of a personal collection. Collecting e-books will simply never satisfy the desires of book lovers. Nevertheless, the advent of e-books, particularly Google Books with its millions of “free” books, does provide the opportunity for the creation of specialized book collections that traditional book collectors could never afford or might take a lifetime to acquire.
As with much of all things digital, the shape of the future is unclear. Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook may be competing for control of the portable e-reader devices, but Google has already vanquished any real competition when it comes to the digitization of existing books through their ambitious Google Books and Google eBookstore. The controversy surrounding Google Books has garnered a fair amount of press and the benefits and dangers of Google’s digitization efforts have been discussed with much concern, for example, in the pages of the New York Review of Books. It has generated, in the words of Robert Darnton, “on the one hand, utopian enthusiasm; on the other, jeremiads about the danger of concentrating power to control access to information.”
Whatever the pitfalls may be, I’d like to focus on one of the immediate benefits of Google Books, benefits that virtual book collectors, educators, and historians may find most useful and interesting. Once one has created an account with Google, one can begin adding books to a personal library, which can be set up with different bookshelves, set to private (for personal access and use) or public (for public access and use). The bookshelf feature allows for the development of specialized collections of e-books, all of which can be searched by keyword for research purposes. To learn how to set up your own Google Book Library and bookshelves check out Google’s helpful “My Library FAQ.”
The possibilities here are endless. Just as many bibliophiles collect books for the sake of collecting, for the pleasure of possessing books, an e-book collection can also be built for the simple pleasure of acquisition and access. The bookshelf function, however, has great utilitarian value. For example, as part of my local history research, I have created a public bookshelf, entitled, “Digital Library of the Lower Scioto Valley.” Here one can find “full view” books dealing with various aspects of the history of the Lower Scioto Valley of Ohio. As I proceed with my research, I may add new titles I come across or I may decide to add books that only allow previews, snippets, or sample pages, which in some cases, full access can be purchased through the Google eBookstore.
As a public bookshelf, the web address of the “Digital Library of the Lower Scioto Valley,” can be distributed to students enrolled in my Ohio Valley History course, in lieu of a costly textbook. Specific readings from within books or whole volumes can be assigned for reading. Additionally, as there are many primary sources included in the Digital Library, students could conduct original research in the library, which is facilitated by the keyword search function, that allows readers to search only within the volumes on that particular bookshelf.
For those interested in the history of Portsmouth, Ohio, which is located at the confluence of the Scioto and the Ohio rivers, one can find an e-book edition of Henry Bannon’s Scioto Sketches: An Account of the Discovery and Settlement of Scioto County, Ohio. Originally published in 1920, Scioto Sketches is a must have for any local history e-book collector.
Or, if one wanted to go back even further to the first publication that dealt exclusively with the early history of the Scioto Valley, one can find an e-book volume of the American Pioneer, which was briefly published by the short-lived Logan Historical Society.
Here one can find truly rare historical records, such as a transcription of the contract signed between Nathaniel Massie and those pioneers who established the first settlement in the Virginia Military District at modern-day Manchester, Ohio. Now that such publications have been digitized and made available to anyone with an Internet connection, it may no longer make sense to describe the item as “rare.” But, in a way, that is the beauty of Google Books. Certainly, if you were to come across an actual, original hard-bound copy of “The American Pioneer,” and you were fortunate enough to be able to afford its purchase, you could show off your “rare” find, but now thanks to Google Books, we all can have our own copy. We can download it as a PDF and print it out. We can read it on our iPhones or our E-Readers. We can take it to the beach and not worry about damaging its delicate pages.
Google has also digitized a number county histories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These books are invaluable for local history, as well as genealogical, research. The Digital Library of the Lower Scioto Valley includes “full view” county histories for Adams, Highland, Ross, and Jackson, along with a regional history, Eugene B. Willard, et al.’s A Standard History of the Hanging Rock Iron Region of Ohio. Hopefully, as Google continues their digitization efforts, additional county-level and other regional works will become available.
In the meantime there is plenty of reading to be done and research to be completed.