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Friday, June 10, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Google Books

Google Books
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:  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!


  1. I've not messed with Google Books at all... sounds like I need to! Thanks for the great info. :)

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Laurie Alice!

  3. Laurie Alice, You gave me this information when researching my last book and it is AWESOME! I stumbled across a directory for the area I was writing in and so ALL my names are original names from that location and time period. It is just amazing all the things you come across! Thank you soooo much for sharing this valuable site!

  4. Laurie Alice has unlocked the historical author's best friend:) I appreciate the step by step info as I've not been doing all of that and it will truly help. Personally I find the old Google Books my best resources and they're often far more interesting than anything I pull from anywhere else. Love coming over here to see what's on tap! Bless you.

  5. Thanks, Laurie Alice! I've just dipped my toe into Google books lately and have loved it, but knew there was so much more potential!

  6. Hi Laurie Alice--
    I'm with Anne on this; just started with Google books, and this helps me head in the right direction--thank you!

  7. it is a stunning research tool I'm kind of shocked more people don't use.

  8. What a great research tip Laurie Alice, thanks so much for sharing. You can believe I'll be using this for future reference.

  9. Sounds great! I've never tried it out yet but now I'm planning to!

  10. I really applaud the patience and resilience of anyone who wrote historicals before Google Books. The advanced search is truly amazing. My protagonist is well-known in his community for his skills as a horse-healer/farrier, and by searching for the specific name of the ailment he was treating and limiting the search to 1700-1800, I found several 18th century farriers' and horsemen's medical manuals complete with receipts for various medications. (How well they might have worked is another question.)

    And the phrase search is indispensible. I suspected someone in the 18th c. might say he wanted to "be his own man," but I wasn't sure. So I searched for the phrase for that time period and found usages of it.

  11. Laurie Alice, this article is awesome and you did a fantastic job explaining how to use this great resource. I'm somewhat addicted to Google Books, but you provided some excellent advice that will help me get better results. I've found so much fascinating information there for writing and for my family genealogy searches as well.

    Thank you!

  12. Laurie Alice,

    When you find something that proves some historical fact in Google Books, how do you "copy" it to your list of resources? What has been the best way that you've found to record that information for proving yourself?

    I've been generating a plain text of the piece and pasting it into my OneNote folder along with a link, but wondered if you might know a way to save the page image?

  13. I looked up tea drank in 1776 and found this treasure of a book...You all probably have read it!!
    To be useful to the world: women in revolutionary America, 1740-1790 By Joan R. Gundersen

    Very interesting! There were actually women tea agents who would search houses of other ladies serving tea when tea was politically incorrect!!

    Love it!! Thanks for this interesting post!!

  14. Melissa, I save the whole document in my Google library. Or else, if you don't want to do that, download the file itself.

  15. Google Books has been invaluable for me the last few weeks as I've discovered some of the nitty-gritty details I'm missing for my WIP.

    My hero is a cotton planter. I found a book printed in 1857 called The Cotton Planter's Manual that's a reprint of select articles from the cotton journals of the day. Talk about invaluable!! I read the whole thing and got loads of great stuff out of it to add authenticity to my plantation. The articles were pulled from the very journals my hero would have read, and this book is exactly the sort of thing he would have purchased. I was able to find the exact name at the time, for the type of cotton planted here and was treated to long essays on the particulars of fertilizing, a practice known as topping and the benefits of buying expensive new seed versus curing your own.

    I've also found myself in need of pre-Civil War laws in two different states. Late last week I found a compilation from 1842 of all the laws of Louisiana. Gold mine!!! The other state has proven more difficult, but I did find their black code.

    I also used it when I was researching 1840's cotton gins and found several ads in cotton journals. Never did find exactly what I was looking for, but I found enough to know my set-up will work.

    If I want to save just one page from something in Google Books, I'll clip it into Evernote, a One Note alternative that's free. I did that with a cotton gin ad and just kept the part I wanted without downloading the whole thing.


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