LIFE is Good!

By  |  Saturday, September 26, 2009 at 2:37 am

LifeI’m not sure how I managed to miss this, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the month’s best tech-related news. On Wednesday, Google announced that Google Books has published the entire run of the most famous incarnation of LIFE magazine–almost 1900 issues, spanning 1936 to 1972. It’s the perfect complement to Google Images’ astonishing LIFE photo archive, and as useful a reference work on several eventful decades of American history as we’re going to get in one place.

The only downer is a basic undeniable fact that Google can’t do anything about: LIFE was an oversized tabloid-format publication–taller than it was wide–and computer displays are defiantly horizontal, and limited in resolution. Reading LIFE in your browser feels a little like scanning through issues using a virtual microfilm machine, despite conveniences such as thumbnails of pages and a zoom feature. (Tip: For the best reading experience, choose the full-screen mode and the facing-pages view, then zoom the magazine to fill the screen. You’ll still have to squint a little, but it’ll be worth it.)

Okay, Google Books does offer one feature that makes its LIFE archive infinitely more useful than microfilm could ever be: full-text searching of the magazine’s entire history. That’s how I’m finding gems like this 1963 feature on Polaroid’s first 60-second film and this 1964 ad for a Sony TV with a four-inch screen. There are still things about Google Books’ interface I don’t understand, such as why there doesn’t seem to be any browsable list of magazine titles that would make it easier to locate a particular publication. (LIFE is plastered all over over the Google Book home page at the moment, but when they bump it for something else it’ll be surprisingly difficult to find.) I also can’t figure out a way to search a particular publication, then sort the results by date. (I wanted to see when LIFE first mentioned computers, a topic it would cover heavily over the years.)*

But I feel guilty for being critical here–LIFE on Google Books may not be perfect, but that doesn’t prevent it from being sheer joy.
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*I just figured out how to do this–it involves using advanced search and then entering the name of the magazine in a field confusingly labeled “Return books with the title.” Which brings up a question: Should all the magazines currently living in Google Books be spun off into something called Google Magazines?

 
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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Seumas Says:

    This is fantastic and I hope that they expand this. As a fan of the AMC show ‘Mad Men’, I particularly enjoy viewing the vintage advertisements of the 60s issues in the context of the rest of the magazine’s content.

    I hope they’re able to do this with other properties, like National Geographic. Growing up, I enjoyed reading the magazines my grandfather subscribed to and kept around for years. He had not only many years of Discovery, OMNI, Modern Mechanics, etc… but also National Geographic dating back to the 1800s. What I wouldn’t give to see those all in digital form at my finger tips!

    Further, imagine if the Kindle eventually comes with a color screen and a more robust free whispernet that allows you access to certain things… like all of Google Books (yeah, I know it probably will never happen since it’d be competing in a way with Amazon purchase… but I can dream).

  2. John Baxter Says:

    LIFE would have mentioned computers for the first time no later than the 1952 US elections, when Univac was prominent in the electronic coverage.

    Very likely earlier, but no later than that.

    (We bought our first TV set–a round screen 9 inch Zenith console–to follow those elections–it also showed us Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Before that set, TV was something I saw to the left of the entrance to the Griffith Park Observatory complex, where it mostly showed test patterns while I was present. Yes, as my Twitter profile proclaims, I’m a geezer.)

  3. Tom B Says:

    ‘..defiantly horizontal..”

    rotatable monitors (e.g. from Radius) were the rage in the early ’90′s How come they never caught on? They ought to be great for text– which is mostly vertical format.

  4. Digital Product Reviews Says:

    Wow – can’t wait to go through some of those :)

  5. L1A Says:

    Google says it’s in “private beta”, so why the Apple hate everyone?

  6. CourtGQuinn Says:

    Awsome. A few weeks ago i spent plenty of time going through Popular Science and Mechanics issues via GoogleBooks going back many decades. Perhaps a feature to add comments to the archived articles would be a good idea…as in, allow people to post notes to old articles…a “Past Articles, Current Comments” section/blog/forum..

  7. website design Says:

    not gonna care until they start publishing textbooks -.-

  8. Michael Says:

    Another thing that would be fun while reading life is to look at the same week’s Billboard issue and playing the Top songs from that week online somewhere. Time should follow suit as most of their news archives have been available for the past several years.

  9. Shreya Brenna Says:

    I have tried reading Life and I had fun. Just like what you have said, "LIFE on Google Books may not be perfect, but that doesn’t prevent it from being sheer joy."

  10. Odilia Bartlett Says:

    Life is one of the magazines you should be reading. If you are not reading it, well you are missing half of your life.

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