The Google Books Ngram Viewer is a tool that can be used to make specific searches within Google Books. Unlike searching for a single title in Google Books, using the Ngram Viewer will provide you with actual data and a graph related to your research topic. This will allow you to see a timeline of how frequently or infrequently your research subject appears in Google Books’ massive library.
I realize that this sounds a little daunting, especially for those of us (myself included) who are not statistics wizards. However, the Ngram Viewer can still be used for doing historical research, which is what I’d like to show you how to do. Read on to learn more about this interesting tool:
First you need to find yourself at the Ngram Viewer home page. The default search settings are a bit more complicated than your average Google search. In addition to plugging in a search term, you can also customize the years that you’d like your search to cover and the language you’d like to do your search in. Provided you’ve clicked the link I provided at the beginning of this paragraph, you should be looking at this:
All searches made through Google Ngram Viewer appear on a graph (think the x and y style graphs of elementary school math.) As you can see in Google’s example, there are three subjects that are graphed according to how often they appear in Google Books. None of these individuals are of great interest to Greenwich Village History (correct me if I’m wrong), so that information isn’t exactly of use to me. But before I dive into researching my topic, there are a few things about the Ngram Viewer that I’d like to point out:
- Google Books Ngram Viewer is case sensitive. I’m bolding this for emphasis because you need to be aware of this! Make sure that you are capitalizing the correct letters in whatever you are searching for. Not having the correct capital or lowercase letters will negatively affect your search. If you aren’t sure of the correct spelling or capitalization that you’re searching for, you can also click the “case-insensitive” when performing your search.
- Depending on the kind of research you’re doing, you can search in languages besides English. Search in other languages may not be as important for me right now, but could be of use to you.
- Smoothing: I’m not an expert and don’t want to confuse you, so follow this link and scroll down for more information on the subject. I will say that I did not have trouble getting results for my topic by using the default setting of “3”.
- Advanced Searches: This post is geared toward those of us who are looking to use the basics of the Ngram Viewer. If you’d like to learn more about the advanced search features of the Viewer, click here.
Now let’s see how this works out when we try searching for something. I’m going to start with a simple, single search on my own personal research topic, the Washington Mews:
The x-axis of the chart lists the publication years. The y-axis of the chart measures the frequency of which something appears in Google Books. The blue line measures how frequently and when ‘Washington Mews’ appeared in the English language books available in Google Books. If you’re looking for information on a specific year, you can hover over a point in your graph to get the answer:
Given that the Washington Mews didn’t come into existence until well into the 19th century (its famous gates built in 1888), it’s not too surprising that any literature doesn’t appear on the subject until 1890.
Now to the books! Right below your graph you’ll notice some links:
Each of the time period links will provide you with a published resource than contains the topic you searched for. I’m going to re-click on the ‘1800-1918’ link and check out my results:
Please note that this is just a tiny excerpt of my search results in this time period. I had 10+ pages of results that turned up in Google Books for this time period alone. My results ranged from magazines to medical directories. There’s a lot to be found in these results. If the results that turn up are too much for you, you can narrow down your search by entering new keywords. At the top of your search page, there are even more options: you can adjust the kinds of documents (books or magazines) and their availability (preview, Google eBooks, Free Google eBooks.)
Now the real question is: is it worth using Google Books Ngram Viewer for your own historical research? I’m inclined to say yes. However, I do need to point out some of the weaknesses that can come along with using a tool like this for historical research:
- Scope: Google Books isn’t a small library, but it still doesn’t contain every single book ever published. You may get results that didn’t turn up when you searched another library’s catalog, but the contents of Google Books is still finite.
- Availability: There are lots of results that turn up, but that doesn’t mean that you can use them all. Not all materials will be available due to copyright laws.
- Usability: The Ngram Viewer can be intimidating at first glance. It takes a little playing around with to get used to.
- Practicality: You probably don’t need to use the Ngram Viewer if you’re looking for basic historical facts. A regular Google search can help you with that.
But for those of us looking to review literature on our respective research topics or who want to know what other kinds of documents are out there, the Google Books Ngram Viewer is worth trying out. I found useful resources that I hadn’t come across previously and realistically would have never found. While it may not be for everyone, the Ngram Viewer is still an interesting resource for performing historical research.