Google Scans British Library Books: Good News Bad News

June 22, 2011

I read an announcement today that Google has struck a deal with the British Library that will offer thousands of printed content for free online viewing. The good news is, of course, the great number of old books people around the world will be able to see. The BAD news is that Google is doing it. Their scans of books with illustrated artwork are atrocious.

Cover art from Google scan

Art is missing from Google scan

I often spend a great deal of time searching through the virtual shelves of free content at Archive.org. Anytime I see “book digitized by Google” I don’t bother looking at them, even if it’s the only result available, unless or perhaps if the book is text only. It’s not worth the pain and sadness to see what they have done with the scans of printed illustrations. The image on the left, for example, is a Google scan of the cover for the 1892 edition of L’Artiste Vol. 2. Are you kidding me? I’ve seen better copies from a Xerox machine. For some Google scans it appears that maybe the character recognition software used didn’t know what to do with artwork so it was either left blank, as shown on the right image above, or it gets turned into a black blob. Illustrations, my dear Google, are as important to a book as the text, in most cases even more so. If you’re going to apparently rush through it, why bother? By comparison, kudos to the University of Toronto whose scans are also available at Archive.org. They do a wonderful job.

Univ. of Toronto scan

I’d like to send out a plea to the kind folks at Google. Thank you for the effort, but for Heaven’s sake please do a better job. Converting these scans into 1-bit low-resolution digital files utterly destroys the quality of fine line drawings and engravings. It’s like making a DVD copy of a classic film and then giving us a VHS tape instead. No thank you. I can only hope that the original scans exist somewhere in better quality and somehow they can somehow be made available instead.



  1. Love archive.org. I wish there were a way to contact google, as i agree with you about the hit-and-miss nature of their scans. Enjoying your blogposts. Kate

  2. I love archive.org. Google is a few steps above newspaper microfilm sometimes, and that can be a real issue. As a fan of 19th century illustration (Abbey, Pyle, etc.), it’s great to have that old work available … I simply wish it was at a better resolution.

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