Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) is giving researchers nearly a half-million dollars to test the academic value of its rapidly growing online library.

The grants announced Wednesday will be used to help pay for 12 humanities projects studying questions that will require sifting through thousands of books to reach meaningful conclusions.

Google is hoping the research will validate its long-held belief that making electronic copies of old books will bring greater enlightenment to the world. The company’s critics, though, have argued that the Internet search leader has trampled over copyright laws to build a commanding early lead in digital books so it can boost profits.

“A wide range of digitization efforts have been pursued with increasing success over the past decade,” Google said in its “We’re proud of our own Google Books digitization effort, having scanned over 12 million books in more than 400 languages, comprising over five billion pages and two trillion words. But digitization is just the starting point: it will take a vast amount of work by scholars and computer scientists to analyze these digitized texts.

“In particular, humanities scholars are starting to apply quantitative research techniques for answering questions that require examining thousands or millions of books. This style of research complements the methods of many contemporary humanities scholars, who have individually achieved great insights through in-depth reading and painstaking analysis of dozens or hundreds of texts. We believe both approaches have merit, and that each is good for answering different types of questions.”

The winners of Google’s "digital humanities" awards include a project at George Mason University seeking to draw a more accurate portrait of the Victorian age through a deeper analysis of the vocabulary used in the books from that period.

Other researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Washington are studying tools and techniques for automated library analysis.

The 23 scholars receiving $479,000 in grants are scattered across 15 universities. They’re eligible to apply next year for the remaining $521,000 that Google has budgeted for its digital humanities awards.

Google set out in 2004 to make electronic copies of all the books in the world to feed more compelling material into its online search engine and make more human knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.

But those book-scanning ambitions quickly became bogged down in legal battles over copyright issues that still haven’t been resolved. Google has made digital copies of more than 12 million books so far, but they aren’t all available to see because of a dispute centered on out-of-print books still protected by copyrights.

Google is still awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on a proposed settlement that would give the company the digital rights to the out-of-print books. The U.S. Department of Justice, consumer watchdog groups and several of Google’s rivals have objected to the agreement on the grounds that the settlement threatens to give Google too much power in the digital book market.

Winning Projects

The winning projects as announced by Google:

• Steven Abney and Terry Szymanski, University of Michigan. Automatic Identification and Extraction of Structured Linguistic Passages in Texts.

• Elton Barker, The Open University, Eric C. Kansa, University of California-Berkeley, Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton, United Kingdom. Google Ancient Places (GAP): Discovering historic geographical entities in the Google Books corpus.

• Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, George Mason University. Reframing the Victorians.

• Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University. Classics in Google Books.

• Miles Efron, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois. Meeting the Challenge of Language Change in Text Retrieval with Machine Translation Techniques.

• Brian Geiger, University of California-Riverside, Benjamin Pauley, Eastern Connecticut State University. Early Modern Books Metadata in Google Books.

• David Mimno and David Blei, Princeton University. The Open Encyclopedia of Classical Sites.

• Alfonso Moreno, Magdalen College, University of Oxford. Bibliotheca Academica Translationum: link to Google Books.

• Todd Presner, David Shepard, Chris Johanson, James Lee, University of California-Los Angeles. Hypercities Geo-Scribe.

• Amelia del Rosario Sanz-Cabrerizo and José Luis Sierra-Rodríguez, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Collaborative Annotation of Digitalized Literary Texts.

• Andrew Stauffer, University of Virginia. JUXTA Collation Tool for the Web.

• Timothy R. Tangherlini, University of California-Los Angeles, Peter Leonard, University of Washington. Northern Insights: Tools & Techniques for Automated Literary Analysis, Based on the Scandinavian Corpus in Google Books.

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