Biblical scholars need materials for research.1 And you can access quite a lot through your libraries.
In addition, there are also several good places to go online when you need access something. One of these is Google Books, which aims to be “the world’s most comprehensive index of full-text books.”
As Google has pursued this aim, it’s had various challenges, twists, and turns over the years.2 But for all of that, Google Books can be quite helpful both for titles in the public domain and for those still under copyright.
Titles in the Public Domain
Google Books’s selection includes numerous full-text titles for works in the public domain. In these cases, you can download the books in EPUB, plain text, or—the probably most useful format—PDF.
For instance, let’s say you wanted to read William Sanday and Arthur Headlam’s International Critical Commentary volume on Romans (Scribner, 1899). You could search for and find the title on Google Books. Then, simply click the button for “Download PDF.”
Titles under Copyright
In addition, Google Books can be helpful for accessing titles still under copyright. For such titles, Google Books provides three levels of access:
- Preview: Titles with previews available allow you to search and view select pages in the book. Google only shows you some of the book in order to comply with copyright law.
- Snippet-view: Titles with “snippet” views allow you to search the book and view select portions of pages. In this case, you normally get a few lines of a given page immediately around a given search result.
- No preview: Titles that don’t have a preview give you only basic metadata about the title. This information can be helpful. But it also often contains errors or inaccuracies (e.g., incorrect additional authors, wrong publication years, missing series information). So before you rely on Google Books metadata, you need to cross check it with the print title.
Of these, I’ve very rarely found snippet view helpful. But occasionally, it’s helpful to search a title that I also have in print. That way, I can find where to read more thoroughly (e.g., in the case of non- or poorly indexed volumes).
Working with Book Previews
Where Google Books provides a preview of a book still under copyright, however, the service is more useful. Often, the table of contents is linked to the rest of the text so you can jump to individual sections.
If this isn’t the case or if you’re feeling a bit geeky and want to jump to a particular page, click the Share option in the three-dots menu.
Then copy and paste the link provided into a new browser tab. The link should look something like
The portion of the link with the “PA257” indicates the page number of the link. Simply change the number portion (e.g., 257) to go to a different page (e.g., 232). Of course, if Google hasn’t made available the page you choose, the new link won’t open that page.
Also, sometimes book links will have more than one section that looks like the “PA257” in the link above. This seems particularly to be the case when you’re previewing a text that has two volumes in one or some similar situation. In these cases, play around with both portions of the link until you find the one that adjusts the page number.
Lastly, from the over-head menu bar (see above), you can search for text within a given volume. This can be particularly helpful if you have a print copy of a book that you’ve read, but you can’t seem to find a particular statement or section that’s relevant to your current project.
Searching Google Books’ Database
As with Internet Archive, searching Google Books’s massive database for what you need can take some time and patience. This is particularly true with older texts or series.
For example, sometimes the series name will display in the search results but without clearly indicating the contents of the particular volume for that link. So, you may need to click through several links or try different searches to identify the volume that’s actually what you’re looking for.
Other features that can be helpful are the “Other editions,” “More by author,” and “Similar books” sections on any given volume’s page. This section shows results based on similar titles, authors, or other metadata.
There have been a number of times when I’ve tried every search I can think of to find a given volume only to see it then listed among the volumes collected under these sections.
Especially if you’re using Google Books for accessing titles that are still under copyright, what you can get on Google Books is no substitute for the full text either in print or perhaps (if you need only a smaller section) electronically via inter-library loan. You always want to be sure you haven’t inadvertently misunderstood an argument simply because you’ve only read the portions of it available in Google Books (!).
Still, with this qualification in mind, Google Books can be an extremely helpful tool for getting access to a wide variety of research material—whether in the public domain or still under copyright.
Header image provided by César Viteri. ↩
E.g., see Scott Rosenberg, “How Google Book Search Got Lost,” Wired, 11 April 2017; James Somers, “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” The Atlantic, 20 April 2017. ↩