For a list of events related to biblical scholarship, see our online calendar.
View the Calendar >>
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive
Google Books and Biblical Studies: A Developing Resource
Two years ago the mega-search engine Google set off a firestorm by announcing its plans to scan entire library collections to create a massive online library of thirty million searchable volumes. Not surprisingly, several associations of publishers and authors, joined by others committed to the principle of copyright protection, responded vigorously, accusing Google of egregious copyright infringement and filing suit in an attempt to prevent Google from proceeding with its plans.
Lost in the sound and the fury of these public relations and legal maneuverings, however, were several important issues. First, Google Books does not allow users to view significant portions of texts that are still under copyright unless a publisher explicitly grants permission. Thus, although users can search for a word or phrase within a copyrighted work, they will not see more than a snippet of the surrounding context in which the search term appears. In this sense, Google Books might be imagined as a searchable card catalog on steroids. Of course, some publishers, including the Society of Biblical Literature, permit users to view a limited number of entire pages, believing that greater accessibility to quality publications only increases sales. Second, Google Books offers a significant and ever-growing collection of fully searchable, fully viewable public-domain books (i.e., books for which the copyright has expired) that should prove a boon to researchers the world over. The importance of this evolving corpus for biblical studies should not be overlooked.
What does Jerusalem have to do with Google?
Like most things associated with Google, the range of public-domain materials available has been both overly hyped and unfairly criticized. Suffice it to say that users will not find everything they want or need at the click of a mouse. Still, Google already offers a substantial (albeit disparate) collection of biblical studies works, a brief (!) sampling of which follows:
||— sixteen volumes of the International Critical Commentary |
— Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, and his Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung über Gen 1 un Ap Joh 12
— Samuel Rolles Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel: With an Introduction on Hebrew Palaeography and the Ancient Versions
— Karl Budde, The Religion of Israel to the Exile (as well as several other volumes in the American Lectures on the History of Religions)
— Heinrich Ewald, Commentary on the Book of Job with Translation
— Wilhelm Vatke, Die Religion des alten Testamentes nach den kanonischen Büchern entwickelt
— Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, with a Reprint of the Article "Israel" from the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as the German original: Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels
— Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, A Critical and Historical Introduction to the Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament
— Frederick Henry A. Scrivener, A Full Collation of the Codex Sinaiticus with the Received Text of the New Testament: To Which Is Prefixed a Critical Introduction
— William Hugh Ferrar, A Collation of Four Important Manuscripts of the Gospels [MSS 13, 69, 124, 346]
— Shirley Jackson Case, The Evolution of Early Christianity: A Genetic Study of First-Century Christianity in Relation to Its Religious Environment
— Adolf von Harnack, New Testament Studies III: The Acts of the Apostles (vols. 1 , 2, and 5 of New Testament Studies are also available)
— Heinrich Eberhard G. Paulus, Das Leben Jesu, als Grundlage einer reinen Geschichte des Urchristentums
— Edwin Dewitt Burton, Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: The Usage Of Pneuma, Psyche, and Sarx in Greek Writings and Translated Works from the Earliest Period to 180 A.D.; and of Their Equivalents ... in the Hebrew Old Testament
— David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus: Critically Examined
— Otto Stählin, Clemens Alexandrinus und die Septuaginta
In addition to these works, a mere taste of all that is available, one also stumbles on the occasional journal issue and Festschrift. For example, a recent search for "Max L. Margolis" led to an article of his previously unknown to me: "Textual Criticism of the Greek Old Testament (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 67 : 187-97). A similarly serendipitous search revealed a memorial volume written for 1905 SBL President William Rainey Harper, which included essays of varied interest for biblical studies: Lewis Bayles Paton, "A Text-Critical Apparatus to the Book of Esther"; Charles Cutler Torrey, "The Apparatus for the Textual Criticism of Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah"; Paul Haupt, "Critical Notes on Esther"; Julius A. Bewer, "Critical Notes on Old Testament Passages"; George A. Barton, "The Origin of Some Cuneiform Signs"; Charles Prospero Fagnani, "The Structure of the Text of the Book of Zephaniah"; Morris Jastrow Jr. "An Omen School Text"; Nathaniel Schmidt, "The Original Language of the Parable of Enoch"; Richard J. H. Gottheil, "Dhimmis and Moslems in Egypt"; and John Merlin Powis Smith, "The Strophic Structure of the Book of Micah." Festschriften for Alexander Kohut, Crawford Howell Toy, and Charles Augustus Briggs were also discovered, as were a collection of essays by Ezra Abbott, an extensive obituary for and bibliography of works by Daniel Raynes Goodwin, and a number of other collections of essays by various American and European scholars. In sum, Google Books offers a wide array of important and interesting works that can well serve biblical scholarship.
How do I locate these books?
The most efficient searching begins at http://books.google.com/advanced_print_search. Here one can specify one or more search criteria, including words, exact phrase, author, title, publisher, or publication years, to name the most commonly used. One can also limit the search to "full text" books (i.e., those in the public domain), so as to limit the types of search results returned. Based on my (limited) experience, I offer the following approach and hints for effective searching.
||1. To locate a particular book, first search by author last name or, if a last name is common, by first and last name. In most cases, this will identify all the works by the author that are available.|
2. However, this type of searching is not foolproof, since it depends on the accuracy of the author names that Google workers have input. Thus, it is always wise to search by title if you do not find the book you want. If a book is not located when searching by author and by title, you can be relatively certain it is not in Google Books (yet).
3. To locate a variety of books on a particular topic, one should begin by searching for a key word (e.g., Isaiah) or words (e.g., Isaiah commentary) likely to appear in the title of such works. Obviously, to generate the greatest number of "hits," it is better to use the fewest possible words, although this practically ensures that a number of works of no interest will also be listed. One should also keep in mind that Google Books is not an English-only site, so any search for an English term should be followed up by a search for its German, French, and other equivalents (in all their manifold forms).
4. To locate anything that has been written on a particular subject or person, type the exact phrase in that search window. However, be aware that this is the most inefficient type of searching and is likely to generate far more misses than hits.
What should I expect to find on Google Books?
Although Google Books offers a valuable resource to those of us at some distance from a quality research library, it comes with its own set of limitations. First, Google Books is indiscriminate in choosing which books to scan, so one should expect to find a mix of scholarly and popular books, the results of critical research alongside the writings of those less committed to the scholarly life. Second, not all the public-domain books offered are fully viewable. That is, the entries for some books will offer only the barest publication information (presumably because the book is still in the process of being scanned). A large number of other books are viewable online but cannot be downloaded. Fortunately, a significant number of volumes can be viewed online and downloaded as image-based PDF files. Third, the quality of the scans ranges from the easily readable to the occasionally very poor. In addition, some books are poorly scanned for one or more pages but are otherwise readable. Fourth and last, the search function is haphazard, since it is not linked to any sort of subject classification. Thus, users must be "creative" in mining the resources available on Google Books.
How might I use Google Books?
As previously noted, Google Books has not (and likely will not) eliminate the need for access to a quality research library. However, it does offer resources that many of us living in the "boondocks" can put to good use, allowing us ready (and free) access to scholarship from years gone by. More important, however, Google Books can provide access to obscure works of which some scholars and students may be unaware. For example, a simple title search for "Philo" returned, among other books, Karl Reik's Der Optativ bei Polybius und Philo Alexandria. While I am not competent to judge the value of this work, those who are qualified now have the opportunity to evaluate it and incorporate it into their studies as the occasion arises. Finally, most important of all are the many possibilities that Google Books raises for research into the history of interpretation — or even the history of the SBL. Many of those who have gone before us still deserve to be heard in their own voices, not via a secondary (or worse) quotation from a later source. There is no longer any reason to read what others have said about Lowth. Rather, read what Lowth himself said in lecture 19 of Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews or, more succinctly, in his "Preliminary Dissertation" to his translation of and notes on Isaiah. Google Books offers scholars and students alike entrée into the history and seminal works of our discipline. It clearly is a significant online resource simply waiting to be tapped.
Bob Buller, Society of Biblical Literature
 Thus far the SBL has posted seventy-two titles to Google Books, with more to follow in the months to come. To locate all the SBL volumes in Google Books, go to http://books.google.com/
 Gray on Numbers; Driver on Deuteronomy; Moore on Judges; Paton on Esther; Briggs on Psalms (vol. 2); Toy on Proverbs; Barton on Ecclesiastes; Harper on Amos and Hosea; Allen on Matthew; Gould on Mark; Plummer on Luke; Sanday and Headlam on Romans; Plummer on 2 Corinthians; Abbott on Ephesians and Colossians; Vincent on Philippians and Philemon; and Bigg on 1-2 Peter and Jude.
 For example, Google Books currently has available the 1892 (6) and 1895 (9) volumes of Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes.
 Robert Francis Harper, Francis Brown, and George Foot Moore, eds., Old Testament and Semitic Studies in Memory of William Rainey Harper (vol. 2; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908). Volume 1 is not yet listed in Google Books.
 Toy, Briggs, and Abbott were all founding members of the SBL. Goodwin was the SBL's first president, serving from 1880 to 1887.
 Image-based PDFs are not text-searchable. One can read and print the text but not search for text strings in Acrobat without first e-texting the images of the words.
 Needless to say, it would be most beneficial if scholars pooled their efforts to create a subject-classified list of works available on Google Books. One might imagine that the SBL website would be a natural "home" for such a resource.
 I realize that the Google Books search functions are not equally available in all parts of the world. It is my understanding that these capabilities are being expanded and should become ubiquitous at some point in the future. I also do not want to diminish the benefit of being able to view a snippet of a copyrighted work online. This latter is an incredible help for fact-checking quotations and citations from the comfort of one's own desk.
Comments on this article? email: email@example.com
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.
Citation: Bob Buller, " Google Books and Biblical Studies: A Developing Resource," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=605