Entertaining (and disheartening) Chronicle article.. None of this is news to us here on the board, of course, but it is a fun read, in a hair-tearing sort of way.
Start with publication dates. To take Google’s word for it, 1899 was a literary annus mirabilis, which saw the publication of Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the Rain, The Portable Dorothy Parker, André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine, Stephen King’s Christine, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society 1780-1950, and Robert Shelton’s biography of Bob Dylan, to name just a few. And while there may be particular reasons why 1899 comes up so often, such misdatings are spread out across the centuries. A book on Peter F. Drucker is dated 1905, four years before the management consultant was even born; a book of Virginia Woolf’s letters is dated 1900, when she would have been 8 years old. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is dated 1888, and an edition of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is dated 1848.
Of course, there are bound to be occasional howlers in a corpus as extensive as Google’s book search, but these errors are endemic. A search on “Internet” in books published before 1950 produces 527 results; “Medicare” for the same period gets almost 1,600. Or you can simply enter the names of famous writers or public figures and restrict your search to works published before the year of their birth. “Charles Dickens” turns up 182 results for publications before 1812, the vast majority of them referring to the writer. The same type of search turns up 81 hits for Rudyard Kipling, 115 for Greta Garbo, 325 for Woody Allen, and 29 for Barack Obama. (Or maybe that was another Barack Obama.)
How frequent are such errors? A search on books published before 1920 mentioning “candy bar” turns up 66 hits, of which 46—70 percent—are misdated. I don’t think that’s representative of the overall proportion of metadata errors, though they are much more common in older works than for the recent titles Google received directly from publishers. But even if the proportion of misdatings is only 5 percent, the corpus is riddled with hundreds of thousands of erroneous publication dates