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Google counts the world’s books, even the ones on the floor

August 6, 2010

This is just the sci-fi section!

Google claims to have counted up all the books in the world, arriving at a tally of 129,864,880 — and it seems a significant number of them tumbled to the floor at Indiana State University the other day when, in a scene out of a Ben Stiller movie, “workers accidentally set off a domino-like tumbling of long rows of shelves.”

Dontcha wish you could’ve been there to see it? According to the Chicago Tribune, 25,000 books were involved in the fracas at the university’s Cunningham Memorial Library on Wednesday. Student workers, repairing the base of some empty shelving, removed a bracket holding shelves together.

You know happened next: The empty shelf fell into a full one, causing a domino effect.

No one was seriously hurt in the tumble, though some student workers got some cuts and bruises, according to the Terre Haute Tribune Star. The entire library was closed as a safety precaution, as 40 student workers began cleaning up the mess. Organizing and reshelving the books –mostly histories and dictionaries –will take weeks.

Meanwhile, the university is inspecting all other library shelving on campus. “We’re 99 percent sure this was a fluke, but we’re certainly not going to take a chance,” said Alberta Comer, dean of library services.

As for Google’s count of the world’s books, some commentators are expressing awe at the 129,864,880 total, but it seems low, doesn’t it? I mean, as a book reviewer, especially back in the early 2000’s, before the digital plague fully took hold, I used to get what seemed like 100,000 review copies every couple of weeks.

But seriously, according to Wikipedia, something like a million new books are published each year, and I can only think that number will skyrocket as digital publishing makes it easy for every person on the planet to upload his or her masterpiece to Amazon or some other “platform.”

Okay, now I’m scaring myself. Give me a moment…While Wikipedia lists sources, it doesn’t explain its methodology. But Google does. Boy, does Google explain its methodology. Visit Inside Google Books, where software engineer Leonid Taycher tells more than you want to know (or more than I want t know, at least), about “metadata,” the usefulness of terms like “tome,” the shortcomings of relying on ISBN or Library of Congress numbers, and other difficulties in defining the word “book.”

Of course, Google doesn’t count books by hand — that would be SO 20th century. Instead, it collects metadata from various sources, then subjects it to analytical algorithms. Whatever that means. Hey, I was an English major, sue me. I think I’ll go read some C.P. Snow…

The algorithm culls out maps, recordings, videos, t-shirts assigned ISBNs and other “nonbook” items libraries may have in their collections, like the “turkey probe” cataloged by one library as an April Fool’s joke.

If 129,864,880 isn’t as impressive a tally as I’d expected, it’s still enough to induce reader’s guilt. I’m so far behind.

By the way, I haven’t forgotten the list of classic gay lit promised for today. Look for it Monday. I couldn’t resist the domino-effect item.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    August 7, 2010 2:27 pm

    I understand Harlequin romances account for 30 percent of the total.

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