Sunday, June 12, 2011

Google's Continuing Expansion of Online Books

Among the great accomplishments of this century is going to be Google's decision to scan the contents of the great libraries of the world, and make them available in a searchable form, from anywhere with an Internet connection. 

I am doing what I hope will be the last revision of my upcoming book, now retitled, My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill.  As I go through the book, improving transitions, cleaning up awkward sentences, and generally polishing the text, I also look for opportunities to extend and enlarge particular sections.  In several chapters, I have long felt that I relied a bit too much on Professor Gerald Grob's work on the history of mental health treatment in the U.S.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this: Grob is the nationally recognized expert on the subject.  Still, it is good to use other sources, both to verify accuracy, and to see if there is anything that he missed that might give a slightly more nuanced understanding of the subject.

Especially where I have relied more on any single source than makes me comfortable, I am cross-checking information.  In many cases, I am looking for additional information to fill in particularly curious or important points.  What pleases me no end about the continuing expansion of the number of books that Google has scanned is that some items that I looked for three years ago--and found nothing--now give me additional sources.  As an example, a few years back, I knew that several of the New England colonies authorized the building of individual insane asylums, where family members, with some financial assistance from both colonial and town governments, could lock up relatives who had been found not guilty by reason of insanity. 

Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut had information concerning one Roger Humphry who murdered his mother in 1757, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Connecticut and the town of Symsbury provided funding to Roger's father Benajah to build a secure facility where he could care for his son humanely, but without any risk that he would be a hazard to the larger community.  Gerald Grob's book Mad Among Us mentioned a couple of other examples in Amesland, Pennsylvania (1676) and Braintree, Massachusetts (1689).  But that was all that I had.  Searches for more information came up empty.

Now, searches for more information are coming up with lots of additional information.  State of Pennsylvania, Official Documents, Comprising The Department And Other Reports Made To The Governor, Senate And House Of Representatives Of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Penn.: Edwin K. Meyers, 1893), 8:107, told me a lot more about the Amesland insane asylum for a family member, and Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Norfolk County, Massachusetts… (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1884), 1:312 provided details about not only the Braintree, Mass. asylum built in 1689, but another one built in 1699, for a similar purpose.

The Internet revolutionized scholarly research, but has made an even more dramatic leap than the Internet alone.

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