Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Grail Bird Book

Note: There is no Ivory-billed Woodpecker content in this post. If you're looking for a grail bird, please move along, there's nothing to see here. This post is about bird books.

Some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent in used bookstores. There's nothing better than poring over titles and wandering between bookcases, down aisles almost too narrow to travel because of the need to make room for even more books (every bibliophile knows that you can never have too many bookcases). The thrill of the hunt extends equally to the prospect of scoring a great bargain and to scoring a book that you've always wanted (and perhaps have never even seen). Why, that book might be on the very next shelf you check!

Fast forward to Google Book Search.

Suddenly, a huge array of books are at your virtual fingertips. You can search, or even download the entire text of some public-domain books as PDF files. You can create your own virtual library, with no need to jam yet another set of bookcases into your already crowded living space (let's put it this way, when I have my annual fireplace inspection, even the chimney sweeps comment on all my books). It would seem like a wonderful thing...

As usual, wonderful things often aren't quite as simple as they appear at first blush. There's been a lot of controversy and even litigation over Google's Book Search; you can find all that on your own if you don't know about it already.

Getting back to the point, this blog's focus is NJ birding history. Early works concerning the birds of NJ (or, indeed, any state) are often difficult to find and command a certain price if you can find them. The sad fact is that old bird books are valuable both as objects to a book collector, and as sources of information to birders. That drives the prices up, and none of us have as much money as we would like to build our own reference libraries (even without the prospect of a total collapse of the financial system...I'll be the one towing a little red wagon with a stack of bird books as I stand in the bread line!).

William Turnbull's The Birds of East Pennsylvania and New Jersey was singled out by Witmer Stone in Bird Studies at Old Cape May as the first really reliable list of NJ birds. As a result, it was immediately added to my list of grail books. However, it's scarce, having only been printed in two editions totalling 200 copies in 1869. When I stumbled across its PDF version in Google Book Search (linked to in the sidebar), I was overjoyed. As a birder, I wanted the information more than the object. This seemed like a perfect solution for me to access the information in the book without having to shell out the big bucks for an actual copy, or find an institution holding a copy. Life was good.

As I paged through the PDF, I started finding problems. The first tip-off should've been that the PDF was 105 pages long, whereas the last numbered page was 65; even allowing for the front matter, there was bound to be a discrepancy. Then there were all the blank pages, or worse, the pages with a random chunk of text and lots of white space. This was not a document you could read through easily. As I looked at it, I got more and more perplexed.

Last weekend found me in the New Jersey Room of Rutgers University's Special Collections (to be found in the basement of Alexander Library on the New Brunswick College Avenue campus). I was there sussing out the collection for classwork, but also for personal research interests such as genealogy and birds. They had two different copies of Turnbull's book on the shelf, one with its own special handmade archival case. I looked at the copy that did not have to be disinterred from the case, and discovered that the blank places in the PDF often corresponded to illustrations in the original. I also found that the illustrations (as was typical for books of that era) were covered by pages of tissue. Now the PDF made more sense, if the illustrations were omitted and the tissue pages were scanned like pages with type on them (or if they sometimes obscured pages with type during the scanning process).

I was lucky to find a real copy of Turnbull's book to "ground-truth" Google's PDF. I'm also lucky to have access to a good academic library as a current grad student (though any Rutgers alum can also have such privileges, plus the Special Collections are available to outside researchers). Many people would not have these advantages.

Bottom line: Google Book Search can be a good thing to improve access to old, scarce books (and I'll certainly be using it myself), but in the end, you may still be better off with the actual book.

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