How to Expand Your Research Materials with Google Books

The past few weeks, we’ve considered how to expand your research materials by using:

These online repositories like we discussed last week are great for getting access to public-domain titles. But what if you need something that is still under copyright?

"Books" signImage by César Viteri

Aside from purchasing the resource outright, one obvious way to access a title still under copyright is through a library, whether at your school, simply nearby, or via inter-library loan.

But there are also a couple good places online that you might also find helpful. This is particularly true if you need only a modest section of a particular book (e.g., a chapter). Here we’ll focus on just one of these places—Google Books.

Google Books

Google Books aims to be “the world’s most comprehensive index of full-text books.”

Public Domain

Before we talk about using Google Books with titles under copyright though, we should note that Google Books’s selection also includes numerous full-text titles for works that are 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, if 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 gear button in the upper right-hand portion of the window, and choose “Download PDF.”

Screenshot of Google Books showing how to download Sanday and Headlam's ICC commentary on Romans in PDF

Under Copyright

But like I already mentioned, Google Books can also 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. You only get a selection because Google has to comply with copyright law and can only show you some of the book.
  • Snippet-view: Titles with “snippet” views allow you to search the book and view select portions of pages—i.e., the few lines of a given page immediately around a given search result.
  • No preview: Titles marked as not having a preview will give you only basic metadata about the title (e.g., author, publisher, publication date). This information can be helpful. But it also often contains errors or inaccuracies (e.g., wrong 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 has been useful to be able to search a title that I’ve also gotten in print and find where to read more thoroughly (e.g., in the case of non- or poorly indexed volumes).

Where Google Books provides a preview of a book still under copyright, the service is more useful. Often, the table of contents is linked to the rest of the text so that you can skip to individual sections easily.

If this isn’t the case or if you’re feeling a bit geeky and want to jump to a particular page, click the link button in the toolbar. Then copy and paste the link provided into a new browser tab. The link should look something like

Google Books link illustration

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 left-hand menu, 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.

Another feature that can be helpful is the “Related books” section on any given volume’s “About this book” page. This section shows results based on similar titles, authors, or other metadata.

Google Books "Related books" screenshot

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 under the related books section of a closely related but different volume’s about page.


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.

What gems have you found in Google Books?

What other features of Google Books have you found useful?

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