Tuesday, June 17, 2008

on Google Books, yet out of reach

A long time friend of mine, Patrick Michelson, recently completed his PhD thesis in Russian history at University of Wisconsin-Madison. News of this brings me back to my days as a grad student in history at UW in the mid 1990s.

More than the academics, graduate school was really about the distractions: frequenting the smoky bars of Madison, watching old movies, acquiring a taste for bourbon and country music, hunting for prized possessions at garage sales, sailing and windsurfing on Lake Mendota, taking backpacking and canoing trips, and...working at the library.

Back then, Patrick and I both worked at the Memorial Library Information Desk under the venerable Information Librarian and Building Manager Dennis Auburn Hill. "Working at the library" usually meant doing some reading and shooting the shit with other library employees and friends while holding down the desk. Indeed, it was probably the cushiest job in the library outside of the late night study id checker. In fact, at Memorial after 5 p.m. underemployed graduate students sort of took over the library by running the various service counters throughout the building.

When we both finally overcame the distractions and procrastinations that kept us from completing our MA theses back in the summer of 1996, we had but one way of paying tribute to the friendships and pastimes that gave meaning to our humble existence at the time: the acknowledgments page. This was an opportunity, using veiled references and inside humor, to interject a little personalization into a weighty academic document. We packed it to the gills with mention of mentors, friends, and family.

I was delighted to find that my MA thesis as well as Patrick's have been digitized by Google. My first instinct was to look at that acknowledgments page. I was really bummed to find that the document is restricted to snippets. I'm not sure who to blame? The University? Google? University Microfilms? Or me for not giving permission? The whole beauty of the Google Project is to get obscure and generally insignificant works like these out in the public domain.

I felt honored to make it into Patrick's acknowledgments again in is PhD thesis. One of the things I asked Patrick about his thesis was whether he got to put a hardbound copy in the library. Having your thesis in the basement of the library along with all the "giants" who preceded you always seemed like a big part of the reward. (We also used to take pride in looking ourselves up in OCLC WorldCat, was at least as exciting as finding your own name in the phonebook.)

He said that the library still was putting a paper copy in the stacks, though now its a tinier paperback version. For future dissertators, it'll probably eventually shrivel down into a digital copy .

1 comment:

P. Lally Smoove said...


Thanks for the props. If only my present life wasn't so damn good, I'd pine for the summer of '96.