Beyond the Search Engine
By Laurie Alice Eakes
While studying for my master’s degree in history, I enjoyed the privilege of an enormous library that could, consequentially, obtain books from near and far, new and very old. Once I left there, research became such a let-down. Phrase dictionaries didn’t quite have what I wanted to find out. The information about a social attitude of the day eluded me no matter how many contemporary sources I read. And how did critics of the time truly feel about Daniel Defoe’s most famous work Robinson Crusoe?
Amidst controversy and delight burst Google Books. Whether or not they should be scanning and selling versions of books under copyright is not the point of this discussion. Here I am talking about getting the most out of searching books and the wonderful other sources no longer under copyright or, as the proper term is, in the public domain. Right now, this is still anything published before 1923. That date will move, but that’s getting into extensive and complex copyright law with which I will not bore anyone, including myself. Be assured that most of your favorite hymns and carols and songs the historical author of anything prior to 1923 wants to access for one’s story may be freely used just like the King James version of the Bible.
To keep this basic for a blog post and not a treatise, I’ll give you some basic dos and don’ts to follow for best results.
1: Don’t treat Google Books like a search engine. This is fine if you know exactly which book you wish to find, and it’s pretty useless otherwise.
2: Get to where you will receive the best results this way:
A: books.google.com No www or anything else. Just what I have.
B: Click on Browse
C: Click on Advanced search.
3: This gives you so many searches, I’m going to walk you through an actual search. And how I filled it out.
1: with the first option: all of these words, as you would with a Google search, use as many terms as you think you need. I kept mine simple to start with. My hero of the next colonial novella I’ll be writing (out 2012 in Colonial Courtships) is a baker. He runs the town bakehouse. So I want to know about Connecticut bakehouses.
2: I don’t have an exact phrases necessary here; however, this is particularly useful when searching specific names such as North Carolina.
C: In this first round, I don’t have unwanted words, but I will to narrow down the results.
4: I use full view only because these are the ones in public domain.
5: likewise, I use all materials because journals, periodicals, etc. are wonderful resources.
6: here is the fun part: limit the years. I want nothing past say 1770 for close to as accuracy as I can get in the story, so I can limit my years from say 1700 to 1770 and keep limiting, again, to narrow results.
What I get are several useful resources I can click on and read or save in my Google library for future perusal and reference. I can download them onto my computer. For those of you with e-readers that will take PDF files, it’s research gold.
I got too many results and received results with plantation information. So I could do a second round with the word plantation eliminated.
In researching one project, I found a list of businesses in a particular town in the 1850s and the owners of those businesses. Talk about a treasure!
One can also search Google Books to learn if a phrase was used at a particular time if other search resources fail you. Take the expression “catch up” as to get the latest details on someone’s life. If you want to know if your colonial heroine and her favorite cousin she hasn’t seen in three years would “catch up” on their lives, you can search for it to read in context in your time period. It wasn’t used that way then, by the way. I looked it up once. It was used as in to pick up a dropped thread or getting entangled in something. So you can see how the term became used to find out what your friend’s latest status report has evolved.
For historical researchers, I think this advanced search feature of Google Books is one of the most grossly under-used resources on the Web. People don’t find it on Google, and stop there. Go a couple more steps, and you will find everything from when doctors started to perform caesarians for difficult births (something I read a lot about for When the Snow Flies), to save the mother and baby, too, to details about specific times, to when a term was first used in proper context.
Enjoy and play around and do, please share your successes. If you have frustrations, leave a post and I’ll see if I can talk you out of saying it’s worthless by showing you other tricks.
Oh, yes, you may wish to click the results in English, too, unless you want another language!