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Google helps scholars mine 1.7 million Victorian era book titles for clues to our historical attitudes

Vlad Savov

Whether we like, loathe, or never even considered the idea of it, quantitative literary analysis seems ready for its moment in the spotlight. Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, a pair of historians of science over at George Mason University, have been playing around with the titles of some nearly 1.7 million books -- accounting for all the known volumes published in Britain during the 19th century -- in a search for enlightenment about the Victorian era's cultural trends and developments. By looking at how often certain words appear in text titles over time, they can find corroboration or perhaps even refutation for the commonly held theories about that time -- although they themselves warn that correlation isn't always indicative of causation. Their research has been made possible by Google's Books venture, which is busily digitizing just about every instance of the written word ever, and the next stage will be to try and mine the actual texts themselves for further clues about what our older selves thought about the world. Any bets on when the word "fail" was first used as a noun?

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