Friday, February 5, 2010

Google Books: Searching in vain

Sometime in 2007, Google Books added a wonderful option for users: We could put books into a collection labeled "My library" and then search only within that list. 

A week or so ago, the "Search my library" button disappeared. The new Google Books page offers all sorts of ways to waste time sorting and labeling books, but no longer can I just click and search just the books in my own library. 

Whose bright idea was that? Someone at Google who doesn't appreciate the true sublimity of Google Books, which resides not in the contentious copyrighted works but in the huge collection of older books and periodicals available for full-text searching. When I researched my annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce's 1909 usage book, I amassed a collection of grammar, vocabulary, reference, and usage books dating from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s, all copyright-free and searchable and clippable. (I could have bought all the books and searched them by hand, but I'm not sure I would have managed to publish in time for the book's 100th anniversary.)

Google's book search was far from perfect, as researchers well know. The same search may bring different results on different attempts. I might search my library for a term I knew was in Bierce's own book -- "expectorate," say -- and find that citation unaccountably missing from the results. But with repeated searches and cross-reference checks, I think (and hope) I approximated the level of accuracy a manual search would have yielded. (As for Google's laughable metadata -- dates off by centuries, crazy categorization, misattribution -- Geoff Nunberg is all over the case.)

OK, this was all a free service, and I actually got lucky -- it was working just at the time I needed it. So I shouldn't be complaining, right? Besides, Google has explained that there's a workaround: To search your library, just plug your parameters into this sample formula:

* The "as_coll=0" parameter defines which bookshelf you search within. In this example, the search is within my "favorites" bookshelf. You can change the parameter to other bookshelf IDs, which are visible in the URL for each of your bookshelves.

* To search within your accounts, you will need to change the value in the uid= parameter to your Google account ID. You will see this account ID in the URL when you visit My Library.

* The q= parameter is what specifies what word or term to search for. So in the example above, I am searching for the word "mad." You can replace this parameter with your search term, Please note that you will need to include "+" between multiple search terms.

Yes, I can do that. Thanks, I guess. But would it really be that hard to just restore the "Search my library" button?


Blythe Gifford said...

I so hear you. This is driving me nuts! Please, Google Gods, if you are monitoring the web, just restore the search my library button. (No, I can't even understand, let along attempt, the workaround."

Brian said...

Thanks for this tip. I, too, am seriously perturbed by this sudden change.

Daniel Hawkins said...

Thanks for the info. I was banging my head against the wall for an hour, and finally figured out the uid= part of it, but didn't know how to specify the collection.

As a workaround that's more convenient (and actually, I'll probably use it even if the "search my library" button reappears), if you use Google Chrome, you can create custom searches that you can access right from the address bar. (See this for details.) Using that, I created a custom search based on the example URL you provided that searches all of the books in my "Textbooks" collection. Now that I have it set up, to perform the search I access it by using "mytexts" as a keyword typed directly into the address bar. For example:

mytexts polarization
mytexts operator
mytexts hysteresis

And that takes me right to the results, no need to go to navigate to Google Books and then to your specific collection first.