Using Google Ngram viewer

There are all sorts of useful websites and digital tools for research. I’m not a particularly technical person and many of them go over my head. I tend to avoid things that require installation of extra software too. But Google Ngram viewer is free and very easy to use – just type it in your search engine bar and it should come up straight off.

You’ll see an interesting looking graph and a few boxes, Google have included some sample search terms as an example (Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein). What the lines on the graph are showing are the comparative books written on those subjects across the space of 200 years (in this case 1800-2000). I tried this out myself by inputting the words ‘Municipal Corporations Act’ and got the following results

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 17.08.30 - Edited

This shows that the peak in publications of books about the Municipal Corporations Act was in 1906 – this makes sense as this was the year that Beatrice and Sidney Webb published their great tome on English Local Government. Below the graph there are links to publications by year, which is really useful if you’re looking up a specific topic and unsure where to start. The search is limited to publications available on Google Books, but there are lots of those, particularly older publications, so it does offer a decent overview.

I’m sure there are lots of uses for this tool. Another that I tried was testing out how much interest there was in municipal towns in the early 19th century. This time I changed the date range to the period 1800-1850, which is my area of interest. It’s simple to do, you can see a small pair of boxes with ‘between’ next to them, just in the top left hand corner. In the search box I typed the towns I wanted to compare, separating each with a comma (this is important). So, this graph reveals the number of publications on Birmingham, between 1800-1850 and in comparison to the number of publications written on two other major centres of industry and urbanization

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 17.16.25 - Edited

It’s interesting to note a peak for each of the towns in 1838, the year that Birmingham and Manchester were first granted their Charters of Incorporation. Overall, there appears to have been far greater interest in writing about Manchester than there was for either Birmingham or Leeds. And again, there are links beneath the graph to numerous books available on Google Books for the topics from this date range.

Finally, it is possible to search books published in other languages – I changed this in the drop down box marked ‘corpus’ next to the date range boxes and selected German – I have highlighted 1845 here because that was the year that Engel’s Condition of the English Working Class was published, originally for a German audience. There is a small peak for Manchester at this point.

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 17.35.09 - Edited

The numbers on the left of the chart are revealing the percentage of Google Books that these publications represent – a very, very tiny number in these rather specialist cases. But I think the tool is good fun and has the potential to be interesting for research, if only as a way of locating free to download books on specific topics in certain years. Or to just gauge how much interest there has been in your topic over an extended period of time.


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