Despite all the jokes about Wikipedia’s SOPA blackout on Wednesday being hard on college students, the truth is many students do need to improve their online research skills. We live in an amazing day. Within seconds one can use the internet to locate an electronic copy of an article published in the 1800s or download a book that has been out of print for a century. Such access to research materials would have been unimaginable just a generation ago when one had to track down physical copies of such documents and doctoral students frequently put many miles on their cars driving from library to library in pursuit of key sources.
So where are the best places to look for electronic copies of out-of-print books and older periodicals? Most students are familiar with Google Books. But fewer are aware of several similar sites that are just as helpful, if not more so. When looking for an older source, Google Books is still a great place to start. But if the book or article doesn’t appear there, your search doesn’t have to come to an end.
Internet Archive is much like Google Books, but it is run by a non-profit organization. In addition to containing a number of sources not available in Google Books, Internet Archive often seems to have better quality images of older books. And unlike Google Books, if you download a book from Internet Archive it remains fully searchable.
Another site that seems to be even less well known is Hathi Trust. Founded in 2008, Hathi Trust functions as a digital resource depository for academic libraries. Although younger than either Google Books or Internet Archive, Hathi Trust contains some sources that are not yet on the other two sites. In just the past week or so, I’ve been relieved to find a couple of out-of-print books and periodicals on Hathi Trust after searching the other sites in vain.
These are not the only sites that provide online access to out-of-print documents, but they are three of the best places to begin your search. While mentioning these helpful resources, perhaps a word of caution is in order. The ability to access and digitally search texts is a wonderful blessing, but it also makes it very easy to cherry pick quotes out of a document without understanding the larger work. We all need to be sure we understand the context of a statement before we cite it.