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What Can Google Books Data Search Tell Us About Employment Law Trends?

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance

Among the things we take for granted now is that information about anything and everything has always been available.

(Indeed, if you want to really take a trip back in history, read this article about Time’s pick of the Personal Computer for its Man of the Year award in 1982.)

Google has been at the forefront of making information available and this week, it released another fascinating tool.

Google has taken the 500 billion words it has pulled from its Google Books project and made the data available to anyone here.  The New York Times has full details here.

So, for example, you can see that the usage of the word "Hartford" peaked around 1939 and has been dropping off ever since.

I thought it might be fun to look at a few employment law-related terms to see if any trends could be ascertained from 1920-2008.  The results are not scientific by any stretch, but it’s a fun exercise nonetheless.

So, for example, comparing the terms "Title VII" and "sexual harassment" shows that books referencing Title VII peaked in the late 1970s and have been declining since then. (See the first chart above.)

However, books referencing sexual harassment skyrocketed in the 1991-1992 time frame quickly passing Title VII in interest. But that phrase has also been in decline since peaking in the mid-to-late 1990s.

And what happened in the early 1990s to spark interest in "sexual harassment"? Why, the Anita Hill/Justice Thomas hearings.  

Or compare the use of the terms "overtime" and "labor unions" (reflected in the second chart).  You see peak usage of overtime in the mid-to-late 1940s.  

Similarly, you see "labor unions" usage peaking in the mid-1940s and a slow, steady decline after that point.   Given the decline in the influence of unions in the last several decades, it’s probably not a surprise that the use of the term has also declined.

Comparing terms like "diversity", "discrimination", "harassment", and "affirmative action" (the third chart) also shows a peak usage of all those terms in the late 1990s.  Interestingly, "diversity" overtook "discrimination" in 1993 in prevalence of use.   (I should note that it is unclear what the reasons for the decline are; the data merely shows trends from this set.)

Got your own suggestions of terms to search related to employment law? Post them in the comments below and let’s see if we can ascertain any additional trends from this data.  

  • Stephanie R. Thomas

    Dan,
    Thanks so much for sharing this! It will be interesting to watch and see what terms your readers search and what explanations they offer for the trends they see!

  • Justin Theriault

    Hi Dan,
    I thought it was interesting how the rise in major FLSA overtime litigation cases is borne out (as you said, unscientifically) by the data when searching for mentions of “collective action”.