Q&A: The Art of Google Books

The Art of Google Books is a Tumblr blog that showcases errors and anomalies found in the digital pages of Google Books. Krissy Wilson, the creator of the blog and a student at the University of Florida, sifts through scanned pages on Google Books searching for visible signs of the digitizing process: an image of the scanner’s hand, a torn or folded page, photos scanned through protective sheet paper. Through these images, she hopes “to recognize book digitization as rephotography and to value the signs of use…as worthy of documentation and study.”

Art Beat corresponded with Wilson over email about her project:

What inspired you to collect scanned images from Google Books?

As a student of the history of the book, I am fascinated by paratext and peritext; that is, everything in and about a book beyond the body of the text. When I found myself spending hours at a time cobbling searches together in Google Books for my research on somnotexts, I was surprised to find all kinds of adversaria in Google Books. I started collecting them in a folder on my desktop, and, attracted by the database potential of Tumblr, I put it together into a single-topic blog. That was late in March 2011. In August, I was spotlighted by Tumblr, and the blog has grown exponentially since then.

Your project highlights the anomalies in Google’s effort to preserve and distribute books by scanning them in their entirety. What do you think is the significance of the images you collect for Google’s larger goal?

The Art of Google Books can serve as a tool for people that digitize books, explicating much of what can go wrong in the photographic process, as well as standing alone as a gallery of aesthetic images. Daniel Reetz of DIY Book Scanner has identified many of the technical errors that I curate as art. Additionally, I think that, when lots of people are aware of the project, there is an extra dimension of quality control, a kind of crowdsourcing, which helps hold Google accountable for their digitization practice.

As we move further and further into the digital age, what will these imperfections mean? Are these pages lost forever?

This is a good question, and I don’t know if I can answer it. I don’t know much about Google’s digitization process, but I’d hope that, after being digitized, the physical books are returned to their home institutions, even if worn by digitization. In the event that you can’t access part of the text digitally, I’d hope you can still find the book itself on a shelf in a library somewhere.

If they’re disposed of after being photographed, then I think we have a serious problem on our hands. In Nicholson Baker’s “Double Fold”, he discusses the change of (and ultimately, loss of) images from color newspapers when they were converted to black-and-white microfilm. I can only hope that we don’t have the same regrets of the Google Books project in 50 years.

You describe the process of digitizing books as “re-photography.” What do you mean by that?

The rephotography I am talking about is what happens when you take a photograph of a photograph — the idea that, were one to take a photo of the Mona Lisa, you would not have a copy of the Mona Lisa, but a photograph, authored by the photographer. I see the images produced by Google Books employees as photographs, in that sense.

What about your process? Are these anomalies hard to find or are they as frequent as your collection might suggest?

I’m developing a finding guide for Dr. Terry Harpold‘s undergraduate course in hypermedia at the University of Florida–I’m going to be taking his class on a collective hunt for anomalies in Google Books. It will detail how Google Books users can search strategically for the kinds of things I post on the blog.

That said, the time I spend on the blog varies every day. Sometimes, I find lots of things in 15 or 20 minutes. Other times, it can take up to an hour. Tumblr has fantastic queuing features that I take advantage of if I know that I’m not going to have time to work on it. By and large, what I find is really as common as the collection suggests. If you look, you’ll find them.

Your project makes visible the process of scanning Google Books. In the past you worked on a project documenting the wear and tear of children’s books in the University of Florida’s library. What draws you to the imperfections in books and the challenges of book preservation?

To me, used books are infinitely more interesting than the kinds of books that collectors covet. While perfect-condition, first-edition books hold great value in showing us exactly what was created and sold when the book was produced, used books can tell us something about the material culture of the era in which it was used. In a way, I’m documenting the wear-and-tear of digital books: Kids left all kinds of marks on nineteenth-century books, and digitizers leave all kinds of marks on digital books.

Do you have a favorite image or type of imperfection?

This was the very first image, the catalyst to beginning the project. It’s a portrait photographed through the tissue that protects it, and the result is ghostly and ethereal. It’s also got the strongest link to my research. I never would have found this image if I hadn’t been prompted to search Google Books for keywords from a scrap of text bound into another book.

Lately, I’ve been really fascinated by library statements that get digitized along with the books they’re stamped and pasted in. There are so many: “Do not circulate,” “Noncirculating book,” “This book is not to be taken from the library,” “For use in library only.” When you consider these phrases in a digital environment and context, they are often completely contradicted and they start to ask important questions about ownership and provenance.

Is there anything about this project that you feel is important to add?

I would really love to make a book–digital or otherwise!–of the adversaria of Google Books I document in the blog. I feel that there is a kind of expiration date on these phenomena, and that, at some point, they are going to stop happening (already, there are very faithful digital books produced by universities, like the University of Florida Digital Collections). In that way, these images document an important digital moment.