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Google Books Reaches Out With New API
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Posted On March 20, 2008


In an effort to broaden the reach of its ambitious Google Book Search project, last week Google announced the release of a new application programming interface (API) for the service that enables external websites to connect directly to any of the texts in the Google Book Search index. Google Book Search is a tool that searches the full text of books that are scanned, rendered searchable, and stored by Google in its digital database. Books Viewability, as the API is called (http://code.google.com/apis/books), gives web developers the ability, through a set of software protocols, to locate titles on Google Book Search and automatically embed links to those books on their own sites. Frances Haugen, associate project manager for Google Book Search, says the API is the next natural step in the process of allowing the project to realize its full potential. "Google has invested a lot of time, resources, and research into digitizing all of these books. Now we’re moving into the phase of helping people gain access to them."

Naturally, the first set of adopters of the Google Books API consists primarily of online library catalogs, which can use the API to link to Google Books from their item record pages. One of these libraries, the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan, has had designs on incorporating Google Book Search into its web platform for some time, according to Eli Neiburger, IT and product development associate for the library. "We were already doing something like this a year ago," he says. "But we were doing it the ugly way." After a while, the library’s server got locked out of Google Books, so the library contacted Google to obtain permission to use the service in the way that it had been using it. "And then they contacted us with this development API," Neiburger says.

It took the IT staff (or, more accurately, one savvy technician) at the Ann Arbor District Library less than a day to integrate the Books Viewability API into the library’s online catalog (www.aadl.org). "We took our own inelegant integration and in less than a day converted it into something that works the way it ought to," Neiburger says. Now, when patrons seek out, for instance, Homer’s The Iliad, they will find a link on the results page that reads, "Look inside this book at Google Books," which directs them to Google’s page on the Greek classic. Google’s Iliad entry includes references, reviews, and popular passages, not to mention a searchable text of the work.

The announcement from Google was met with some skepticism from certain corners of the blogosphere—in keeping with the relatively controversial nature of the Google Book Search project itself. Writing on Eoin Purcell’s Blog, the author gives voice to those who worry about the intrusive nature of the Google Book Search project and what the new API will do to expand Google’s influence. "This is a little worrying. Google [is] stepping into the flow of traffic and pulling it in with content. You cannot blame them, they have put the investment in, they have been far sighted and now they are in a position to exploit that. I’m just getting a little uncomfortable with their power in this area and what they might mean going forward," Purcell writes.

The Books Viewability API is also already in use at several university libraries, including the University of California, Northwestern University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Iowa, Kansas State University, Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, the University of Huddersfield in the U.K., the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, and the Università degli Studi di Padova in Italy.

The library automation vendor Ex Libris has also integrated "About this book" pages from Google Book Search into its products for libraries. And LibraryThing, an online book cataloging service, now features a "Google Books" field in its search results.

Ex Libris collaborated closely with several of its customers to develop and implement this feature in their libraries. Paul Soderdahl, director of library information technology at the University of Iowa says, "We were impressed with how quickly this moved from idea to implementation. Just one week after we agreed to take part in the pilot, we already had the link in place. We plan to add this service as a target in our SFX service as well."

"The extensible, open design of our products reflects our strategy of enabling libraries to offer their users the services they expect, as soon as such services become available," explains Nancy Dushkin, vice president of marketing at Ex Libris. "We were very pleased to collaborate closely with our customers and Google Book Search in implementing this service in such a quick time frame."

"We want to make sure that people have a chance to see the full potential of what they can do with Google Book Search," Google’s Haugen says. "Not everyone goes directly to Google Book Search, and we want to make books as accessible as possible. The library community at large was a natural ground for experimentation, and so far they’ve been doing a lot of exciting things."

The Ann Arbor District Library’s Neiburger says that readers and researchers have come to expect a lot more out of book searching than the staid old card catalog could provide. "We have a lot of appreciation for the fact that Google Book Search allows patrons to do full text searches," he says. "People like the service. It’s a step better than Amazon, which is what people have come to expect. There are a lot of commercial products like that that do this, but Google has a much broader reach."


Michael LoPresti is the former assistant editor of EContent magazine. He is currently a graduate student and freelance writer living in Syracuse, N.Y.

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