How Google Book Search Got Lost
Google Books was the company’s first moonshot. But 15 years later, the project is stuck in low-Earth orbit.
By Scott Rosenberg
Apr 11 2017
Books can do anything. As Franz Kafka once said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
It was Kafka, wasn’t it? Google confirms this. But where did he say it? Google offers links to some quotation websites, but they’re generally unreliable. (They misattributeeverything, usually to Mark Twain.)
To answer such questions, you need Google Book Search, the tool that magically scours the texts of millions of digitized volumes. Just find the little “more” tab at the top of the Google results page — it’s right past Images, Videos, and News. Then click on it, find “Books,” and click on that. (That’s if you’re at your desk. On mobile, good luck locating it anywhere.)
It turns out that the “frozen sea” quote is from Kafka’s Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, in a missive to Oskar Pollak, dated January 27, 1904.
Google Book Search is amazing that way. When it started almost 15 years ago, it also seemed impossibly ambitious: An upstart tech company that had just tamed and organized the vast informational jungle of the web would now extend the reach of its search box into the offline world. By scanning millions of printed books from the libraries with which it partnered, it would import the entire body of pre-internet writing into its database.
“You have thousands of years of human knowledge, and probably the highest-quality knowledge is captured in books,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin told The New Yorkerat the time. “So not having that — it’s just too big an omission.”
Today, Google is known for its moonshot culture, its willingness to take on gigantic challenges at global scale. Books was, by general agreement of veteran Googlers, the company’s first lunar mission. Scan All The Books!
In its youth, Google Books inspired the world with a vision of a “library of utopia”that would extend online convenience to offline wisdom. At the time it seemed like a singularity for the written word: We’d upload all those pages into the ether, and they would somehow produce a phase-shift in human awareness. Instead, Google Books has settled into a quiet middle age of sourcing quotes and serving up snippets of text from the 25 million-plus tomes in its database.
Google employees maintain that’s all they ever intended to achieve. Maybe so. But they sure got everyone else’s hopes up.
Two things happened to Google Books on the way from moonshot vision to mundane reality. Soon after launch, it quickly fell from the idealistic ether into a legal bog, as authors fought Google’s right to index copyrighted works and publishers maneuvered to protect their industry from being Napsterized. A decade-long legal battle followed — one that finally ended last year, when the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Authors Guild and definitively lifted the legal cloud that had so long hovered over Google’s book-related ambitions.
But in that time, another change had come over Google Books, one that’s not all that unusual for institutions and people who get caught up in decade-long legal battles: It lost its drive and ambition.
When I started work on this story, I feared at first that Books no longer existed as a discrete part of the Google organization — that Google had actually shut the project down. As with many aspects of Google, there’s always been some secrecy around Google Books, but this time, when I started asking questions, it closed up like a startled turtle. For weeks there didn’t seem to be anyone around or available who could or would speak to the current state of the Books effort.
The Google Books “History” page trails off in 2007, and its blog stopped updating in 2012, after which it got folded into the main Google Search blog, where information about Books is nearly impossible to find. As a functioning and useful service, Google Books remained a going concern. But as a living project, with plans and announcements and institutional visibility, it seemed to have pulled a vanishing act. All of which felt weird, given the legal victory it had finally won.
When I talked to alumni of the project who’d left Google, several mentioned that they suspected the company had stopped scanning books. Eventually, I learned that there are, indeed, still some Googlers working on Book Search, and they’re still adding new books, though at a significantly slower pace than at the project’s peak around 2010–11.
“We’re not focused on shiny features and things that are very visible to users,” says Stephane Jaskiewicz, a Google engineer who has worked on Books for a decade and now leads its team. “It’s more like behind the scenes work and perfecting the technology — acquiring content, processing it properly so that we can view the entire book online, and adjusting the search algorithm.”