Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2023 Issue

Google is Using Old Books and New Technology to Combat Disease

A recent story on the Google Research blog quickly caught my eye: Using new technology and old books to combat disease. We tend to think of old books as a source of information about the past, which they certainly are, but the headline indicated the people at Google Brain were using them to solve today's major problems.


The issue they were tackling concerned insect-borne diseases. Mosquitoes and ticks spread dangerous diseases such as malaria and lyme disease. Add to that how annoying the itching bites can be and there is good reason to seek new ways to repel these pests. The most common repellent for mosquitoes, the active ingredient in many of the repellents you find in the store, is Deet (technically, N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). It was discovered 80 years ago after extensive government research. However, it does have certain drawbacks, such as damaging some types of fabrics, not working with all pests, and possibly some negative effects on people.


What the Google researchers discovered was the government had carried on extensive testing in the 1940s when they selected Deet, but what they tested and what were the results was virtually impossible to find. It was stashed away in various places with no practical way to locate it all. However, these were Google researchers and they were aware that Google had scanned and preserved reams of this old stuff as part of Google Books. This allowed them to locate these old reports and review them. What they found was surprising. The government had tested thousands of potential repellents.


Exactly how Google Brain used all this data is beyond the scope of this article, which is another way of saying the computer functions and science are beyond my understanding. The computers are using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to do comparisons of promising molecules to find others that may be useful. Eventually, they came up with a list of 10 molecules that may be more effective than Deet. Further testing will be needed. Hopefully, they will find better repellents that will save lives in areas plagued by disease-bearing insects while making our picnics more pleasant.


The issue for us is old books, and the application of new technology to them. Google Books now has 40 million volumes scanned into their database. This is definitely the information age and that is a lot of data. The issue now is making connections, using the existing data to learn things no one realized was there, and applying it to questions we want to answer today. That is where AI comes in. It can “think” at computer speed, not human speed, and it can sort through voluminous amounts of data in split seconds. Perhaps you've had a chance to ask questions of, or even get stories or poems written on demand for you by ChatGPT. Maybe you have created some unique images through Stable Diffusion. What they can do with AI and data is astonishing, at least to those of us who grew up in the age of pencils and paper. They are fun to play around with, but as Google Brain is proving, AI is serious business. Combine it with data from old books and other sources, and there is no telling what you may discover.


In our own case, over the past 20 years we have put together a database of over 12.5 million records from auctions and other sources pertaining to sales of old books. It has enabled us to not only find descriptions and prices from the past, but to create a scale for estimating the current value of old prices based on an index generated strictly from book sales. We recently developed a method of using the database to estimate the value of entire collections, not just one book at a time. We can estimate how frequently a particular title is likely to come up at auction in the future. We can determine how frequently certain words are used in descriptions of a particular title. Still, there is much more to be learned, not only about books but about the interests of people at various times, and which changes predict our interests in the future. As long as the data has been accumulated, AI will enable us to learn much more than we ever dreamed possible. These are exciting times.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Closing Time, Advance Readers Copy of Uncorrected Proof with a letter from Heller on his personal stationary
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Gates, Bill, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, N Y: Knopf, 2021; first edition, with a handwritten note from Bill Gates
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, first edition, first printing, first issue dust jacket, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Something Happened, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, first edition, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, London: John Murray, 1818, in four volumes

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions