3 for Thursday: 3 Examples of Using Google Books to Trace Human Rights


I’m always surprised to find that many of my students have never heard of Google Books. If I want good information, I almost never use a general search on Google first, that is, unless it is currently a trending topic. Google Books can help narrow down credible sources in a short amount of time.

Related to Google Books is a handy resource that gets very little attention. Google Ngram Viewer is a tool that searches the literature of Google Books for key terms or phrases. Think of it as a hashtag for history, where terms are found and mapped according to those years where they are trending in the literature. I will often use an advanced search in Google Books to get at the same information, but Ngram (not the most intoxicating name from Google) graphs it in a way that gives you a big picture and potential leads for research.

Below are three examples from Ngram (which is case sensitive) that involve tracing social justice through a few key terms related to issues of gender and race. As an historian, I chose these for what they might say about a period and how they might trigger other interesting searches. Click on any image to enlarge.

1) “curse of Ham”

The first search is admittedly rough for me to even type. It represents the use of religion to justify the oppression and slavery of an entire people group. The curse of Ham was a reference to the biblical account of Noah’s son Ham (or Ham’s son Canaan) being cursed with dark skin. It was used to justify slavery in Europe and in America. It became a hot-button term around the Civil War in America and so the graph below might not be a surprise.


2) “suffrage”

I can remember having a conversation around a table with a relative who questioned whether women should have the right to vote (yes, people like this are still around). Women’s suffrage was about the full rights of women to vote, which until less than a century ago belonged only to men. In America, it took until 1920 before these rights were given to women and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified; the graph below should also be no surprise.


3) “civil rights”

Lastly, the term Civil Rights is well known and involves the protection of individuals from discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement reached its crescendo in the 1960s and 70s, though the problem of repression is still at large and the conversation on civil rights continues with a slight dip in the 1980s. The graph below shows exactly this.


These are just a few examples of how Ngram can be used. Less common phrases may turn up some interesting results. Give it a try.




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