Dynamist Blog


Using its regular "search" box, Amazon now lets you search the complete texts of 120,000 different books--those for which the publishers have given permission--including The Future and Its Enemies. To search a single book, you use the box on that book's page. Writing for Slate, Steven Johnson calls it "The Best Search Idea Since Google". Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jacob Levy checks his own book for mentions of John Rawls and proposes some basic uses for the new search engine:

That corresponds to the results in my index, which is a relief--but I think I'm going to often end up using these text-searches before or instead of using indices. The former shouldn't displace the latter. (For one thing, the OCR technology used for scanning certainly isn't perfect, and so there will be references in books that won't show up in the text searches.) At first glance I suspect that'll be the way lots of researchers use this--go to the listing for a particular book and use the "search inside this book" box, rather than running a massive search-all-books-for-these-words. But the search-all-books has its uses, too-- it makes those publishers' books something more like the articles on JSTOR or LEXIS. It makes it possible to discover books that have references or sections or chapters that are of interest to you even though the book as a whole may not be. And it makes something like a citation index possible using books, something that hasn't been true before.

Jacob correctly suggests that the new feature tends to slow basic book searches, especially for authors' names. Eventually Amazon might want to separate the two search functions. He provides links to other commentshere.

One of the most exciting effects of Amazon's full-text search is that it restores books to students' reference sets. As many a professor has complained, kids these days think if a text isn't on the Internet it doesn't exist. But not much written before the mid-1990s, and very little in books, can be Googled. Hence, for many young (or busy) researchers, most of the world's written knowledge might as well not exist. Amazon's search engine is a great advance for civilization--and for authors. Work that would have gone unread will now be read and, along the way, books that would have gone unsold will now be bought.

Of course, the ever-short-sighted Authors' Guild, which not long ago was criticizing Amazon's used book sales, doesn't like the new search, not one bit. Students might look things up without buying the books!!!! They might make copies for their friends!!!! They might do online things they could do by...going to the library. And authors won't get paid extra. (If the AG could outlaw libraries and used book stores, it probably would.) For the full AG statement, see this post by Eugene Volokh. Jacob Levy comments here.

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