Lemony Snippets

By Tom Peters |

Lots of folks are sour on snippets. Google has made lemonade out of the old word "snippet" by using it to describe what will be presented to users when they perform a full-text search in the Google Print Library and retrieve hits for the search term in a work still protected by copyright. Here is Google's brief (and a little vague) description of how this works on the "common questions" page about the Google Print Library Project (http://print.google.com/googleprint/common.html): "For library books still in copyright, you'll be able to find the book in your search result, but we will only display bibliographic information and a few short snippets of the book."

The wholesale snippetization of entire research collections has many authors, publishers, librarians, and readers riled. In a November 1 article in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Gorman opined, "They are reducing scholarly texts to paragraphs." He described as "ridiculous" Google's argument that a potential reader and/or purchaser of a book could make an informed decision after reading a few snippets.

Let's not forget, however, that readers need to make their reading and book-purchasing decisions based on something, such as the recommendations of friends and colleagues, citations in other books, browsing in libraries and bookstores, enjoyment of other books by the same author, and reading book reviews. I would argue that a reader's "knowledge" of a book always is inextricably linked to the milieu in which that reader first heard about or discovered that book. Snippets are just another aid in this context-sensitive selection decision process.

Snippets seem, to me, to be little more than the old printed keyword-in-context index updated for the new millennium and writ large. Are subject headings just emaciated externally created snippets impressed upon a book, usually by someone who has not actually read the entire book before determining its essential aboutness? Perhaps book titles are little more than proto-snippets.

One problem that mass snippetization poses for librarianship is that it forces us to confront one of the nagging fundamental questions: What is use? When can we say that a person has used an information object and, by extension, knows it? Usage is a continuum and a slippery slope. Some books I "know of" only through discussions with colleagues and references in other books I've read. Some books I read cover to cover and yet make no claims to actually knowing with any sense of confidence what the author was trying to convey or argue. My favorite books I continue to re-read across the years, feeling that I know them well, yet still pleasantly surprised when I discover potential new meanings and layers of richness.

In case you're wondering, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the first known use of the word "snippet" in 1664 in Part II, Canto iii, Line 824 of Samuel Butler's satirical poem, Hudibras: "Witches Simpling, and on Gibbets Cutting from Malefactors snippets." (I wonder if anyone ever complained about the OED's use of snippets?) Perhaps Google's use of in-copyright snippets will lead to a rebirth of the use of gibbets—not the word, but the real thing.