Hand-Held Libraries for God-Like Searches (a Geek Challenge)

Remember, this is a man with that old-fashioned European humanist faith in the library as a model of good society and spiritual regeneration – a man who once went so far as to declare that “libraries can take the place of God.”

–Lee Marshall, “The World According to Eco,” Wired.com


I have a hallway for literature that’s 70 meters long. I walk through it several times a day, and I feel good when I do. Culture isn’t knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time. But, as I said, you never know with the Internet.

–Umberto Eco, ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die’ (interview in Der Spiegel )

I’ll reward any geek-genius a million cool-points who can teach me how to make this possible on Mac OS X Snow Leopard: “Spotlight” search results with contextual lines around search terms for each file that matches the search.

You know, a Spotlight search that doesn’t look like this:

screenshot spotlight search for "James Legge"

–but instead, looks like this:

screenshot google search for "James Legge"

Here’s the vision: My hard drive has dozens and dozens of carefully selected ebooks about my areas of interest right now — primarily World History and Chinese History. I’ve invested a good bit of cash into this because I want a “searchable academic library” on my laptop, out of the following heretical conviction: academic ebooks on a hard drive are a better resource than the internet. Think about it: less time sifting through online search hits; less time evaluating each site’s reliability; higher quality writing; deeper depth of coverage and analysis; broader sample of perspectives from reputable historians specializing in the topics of interest.

Interlude: “I Won’t Go Off on How Exciting This Is”

(I won’t go off on how exciting I find this historically new possibility to have an entire library of hundreds of books in your laptop — a portable, personalized university library, so to speak — ready to be searched, sorted, sifted, copied, compiled, compared, and to generally give you a booklover’s orgasm for its technological speed and literary quality. I just won’t. I won’t say another word about the literal thousands of books you can fit on a standard 500 gigabyte hard drive today, and all but the last few decades of them free and public domain. Not a word, I tell you. I’ll just pretend it’s nothing to get excited about, mention how this idea relates to Umberto Eco’s insistence that personal libraries are more valuable for the books they contain that you haven’t read — but might one day need to crack open to satisfy a spontaneous blast of learning-lust — than for the ones that you have read. Not a word.)

Back to the Geek Challenge:

Let me illustrate:

I posted a vodcast about the Opium Wars and the Fall of the Qing Dynasty on Youtube last year for my History of China course, embedded it on my class Ning for my students to watch and/or download, then promptly ignored the YouTube page. But a couple of days ago I went there for some reason, and discovered a couple thousand visits and a dozen or more comments from the world. Some were the barbaric doozies you’d expect from the Wingnutosphere, but others were quite good — to wit: One viewer questioned a claim I made in the lecture about opium being illegal in England at the very same time England was illegally forcing it on the Chinese market. He said he thought opium was legal in England until the 20th century.

I could have googled “opium england illegal” or whatnot and spent 30 minutes doinking around Wikipedia’s “further reading” links, other sites’ “about” pages, etc. But I knew I had several ebooks on 19th century Chinese history in a folder, so I entered those terms in my spotlight instead, and promptly found info confirming my visitor was right (and interestingly enough, that the famous claim in the open letter of China’s Commissioner Lin to Queen Victoria was also factually wrong), while at the same time being able to read several pages that went deeply into opium use in 19th c. England. It took less than 10 minutes, and had the imprimatur of Oxford, Harvard, and similar ivied fauntleroys to ban the “But is this credible?” goblins from the learning.

The screenshot of that dialogue below (click image to enlarge) shows the quality of the ebook search versus a Wikipedia search, if you look at the level of detail in the passages I copy-pasted into the thread:

screenshot youtube thread on opium war

Upshot: What I’m envisioning is the ability to integrate ebook search results in classroom discussions. If a question like the Youtube gent’s above came up in class, this type of quick search would be entirely practical and seamless, unlike many a web-search. But, to get back to my original request, it would be even more magical if my hard drive search results looked more like Google’s, and less like Mac’s. (And the possibilities for speeding up the compilation of course packets with sets of pages extracted from the ebooks is another shiny bit of awesome.)

Let me close with a) a prayer that Miguel Guhlin (who has always struck me as an über-geek in the best possible way) answers this trackback and takes on the challenge; and b) since I never thought to share that 20-minute vodcast on the Opium Wars — a fascinating and tragic story that every Westerner should know, if they want to understand better how China sees the Western world — what the hey, here it is. I spent a goodly number of hours on it, which is no guarantee that the investment paid off for the viewers. You tell me:

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9 thoughts on “Hand-Held Libraries for God-Like Searches (a Geek Challenge)”

  1. The images in this post are .tiff but .tiff is a non-standard image format for the web and will not be viewable by most users.

    When posting images to the web, images should be .gif .jpg or .png only.

    1. And Stephen, while we’re educating, I’ll just share more by saying that Mac’s “Grab” app takes .tiff’s by default, whereas CMD + Shift + 4 takes screenshots in .png format. So the second alternative is better for web-bound screenshots.

      Thanks again for the lesson.

  2. Hi Clay, I wonder if tossing the eBooks in the Web folder of your user folder followed by the creation of a simple HTML page with an embedded Google search directed at that specific local folder would work? Crude and basic but maybe. I might try tmw when I awake. Cheers, John.

    1. John, that’s intriguing. I follow as far as creating the folder in the “Sites” folder, but beyond that…

      If you do try it, let us know if you’ve solved the challenge, and teach us. Thanks

    1. I can’t believe I’m replying to Thomas Aquinas. Wow.

      And I’m crestfallen at the blank look in my eyes when they see the words “code” and “python,” and tantalized that you sense a solution.

      Curious: how much time would it take a geek to do such coding?

      Thanks for dropping in.

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