If you thought “Googling the Victorians” was about something else, you’ll be disappointed. In this article, Patrick Leary discusses how Google has made his life as a researcher of the Victorian era so much easier.
That’s to be expected with anything in digital history — wouldn’t our lives as historians be so much harder without Google?
But what is so surprising and unique about Leary’s article is how he views Google’s usefulness as something of an accident.
Leary writes about his search for a phrase that appeared in the Sunday Review.. His search for this phrase appeared in a number of other sources as well.
Leary writes: “Such experiences reinforce the conviction that the very randomness with which much online material has been placed there, and the undiscriminating quality of the search procedure itself, gives it an advantage denied to more focused research.”
While Google has helped his work, Leary also writes that it is no silver bullet and that one should always verify the authenticity of a source that is returned in a Google search.
“A great many legitimate scholarly purposes can nevertheless be served by an array of online texts that are, to one degree or another, corrupt,” he writes.
Later in the paper, we hear with excitement the prospects of expanded digitization projects as well as improvements in optical character recognition, or OCR, the technology that enables the searching of 19th century Victorian documents. Leary is also excited about the expanded number of non-profit digitization initiatives, like the Internet Archive.
He then discusses how new generations will take this kind of research for granted.
“What we are seeing is arguably not merely an electronic supplement to traditional library and archival research, but a more fundamental shift in our relationship to the textual universe on which our research depends,” he writes.
In all, this paper is not at all surprising. It could be extrapolated and made applicable to other topics within history, or even other fields. But what makes it important is Leary’s anecdotes about how this has changed his life — and his field.