Google and the English language

The new issue of The New York Review of Books has a fairly interesting essay by the great historian Robert Darnton on, among other things, digitization and the future of libraries. (Jeffrey Toobin’s 2007 overview of the project in the New Yorker is, however, much more informative and thought-provoking.) Though Darnton doesn’t say this explicitly, I think his particular interest in this topic stems from the fact that his own work as a historian has been heavily archival — that is, based on the study of documents that were never published at all or that are inaccessible in any modern editions. So, while he applauds Google’s massive digitization project, Darnton is understandably concerned about its limitations: books it might miss, physical features of books that scans can’t capture, the scanning of one edition of a book that has interesting variants in other editions, and so on.

But given that Darnton’s whole career has been devoted to the study of French culture, it’s surprising that he doesn’t mention another factor: the possibility that Google’s project will accelerate the global dominance of the English language. The five libraries whose complete collections Google has contracted to digitize —
the New York Public Library and the libraries of Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, and Oxford (the Bodleian) — are all English-dominant, for obvious reasons. Each of them has very large collections in other languages, but none of them will possess French books, for example, in the depth that the Bibliothèque Nationale does, or German with the completeness of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.

Maybe this development isn’t all that significant — probably the spread of English is driven by forces far greater than Google — but it strikes me as noteworthy that, as people all over the world are increasingly able to do every kind of text-based research online, the books that they can get instant access to will be overwhelmingly in English.