Do you want a free non-fiction (and even fiction!) research tip?: Use Google Books!
December 6, 2011
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Are you a writer who lives remotely from any major research library? Do you have work to do that requires books that you cannot get hold of easily? I have something to put in front of your nose then:
Make use of Google Books!
I discovered this as a very handy tool for some of the writing projects that I have on. First of all, you have to realize that I live in Bangkok, Thailand, so I am not only remote from any major English language library but I also travel an awful lot during the year so what research that I have to do obviously has to involve searching on the web. And starting on the web is not the lazy way, it is the smart way. At the same time, we all have known the arguments about using, and worse yet, citing Wikipedia (though I would recommend using Wikipedia for ideas and background knowledge). Virtually any other site on the internet cannot give you primary sources. Google Books, though, quite often can get you information that you need if you know how to search properly. This is especially true if you are doing historical research. The resources found inside Google Books are very good for finding great autobiographies / biographies, works from the time period, copies of rare works and first run prints, etc. And quite often Google books is better than Project Gutenberg as well since the works in Google books generally are simply facsimile copies of the original source. Sometimes the Gutenberg book is not. Also, for citations the pagination is more likely to be correct on Google Books due to the formatting in Gutenberg, though the HTML versions of the Gutenberg books tend to be fairly accurate. You will also need to consider that though the Gutenberg Project is working very hard at fixing misprints, misspellings and the like, you only seem to have these in the Google Books works if the original is in bad shape. However, you can generally still make out the text.
Is this perfect? Absolutely not. Where Google Books falls down when doing research is when you come to works that are not yet in the public domain and are still on sale. Most, if not all, of these books have parts of the book or even the majority of the book blocked out so you cannot reach the entire publication online or in a reader. But this isn’t necessarily always bad though. There are times when it is better to buy the book or at least check it out of the library. And I am not a shortcut kind of guy when I research. I want the entire relevant text there so I work at having it all at my fingertips. If I can’t do this with a Google Books book then I try to purchase the book outright. (I do this because I don’t have access to a major research library, remember? You might be able to get away without purchasing these books where you live.)
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that doing all of your research in Google Books is a great thing. True research is much more detailed and involved than that. You have to follow up every source that is relevant to your project, and even some that turn out not to be. I do however believe that Google Books (and Project Gutenberg, for that matter) are great resources that are available on the web now that obviously weren’t there before. And I bet you non-fiction and historical fiction writers can definitely think of projects that you could use Google Books at least as a starting point before you vistit that big research library.
Let me know what you think!