Finding Public Domain Books and Magazines Online
The copyrights of most English-language books and magazines published before 1923 have expired, so the books are in the “public domain” and can be made available to the public without paying any further royalties to the author or original publisher. For various reasons some more recent materials are also in the public domain. Many websites have digitized hundreds of thousands of these public domain books and other publications and posted them online at their websites. Our two free online libraries, History of the Great Lakes States and Century Past Library, have links to several thousand public domain books and magazine articles that are hosted on the websites of non-profits and universities. You are welcome to use them without registering on their sites or ours.
Your search for a free online version of a book or magazine in the public domain, if you know the title, can often start in Google or other search engines, as their results may include free online copies hosted by the major non-profit sites. If that search doesn’t work, we have some other strategies below. But what if you have a topic in mind and need to first do a subject search for likely titles? There are tools for that, and this page will help you find and use them.
Carrying Out a Title Search
When I have a book title for which I want a free online version, I start my search at the non-profit Internet Archive (https://archive.org) because most of the books there can be downloaded to a computer or device. If the book isn’t found there I next check another major non-profit site; HathiTrust (https://www.hathitrust.org/). My third choice is Google Books (https://books.google.com/books). See the separate sections below for suggestions on using these three sites. If I’m looking for a magazine title I start with HathiTrust because it is by far the easiest site for locating a particular issue of a magazine.
Carrying Out a Subject Search for Books
If you have a topic in mind and want to find the titles of related books in the public domain, a simple search in Google won’t get it done. Here are some better approaches:
A. Three Specialized Search Engines
1. The Library of Congress Online Catalog contains a very large number of books published in the U.S. and elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the online subject search tool is not hard to learn. I suggest using the ‘advanced’ mode to limit results to only those books and materials published before about 1924. Sometimes the search results conveniently include a link to a digital version of a book in Internet Archive. Also convenient is that the site can send your search results to you via email. Then you can search online for the titles, as described above.
2. The search screen at HathiTrust provides a fairly easy way to do subject searches, but only for materials hosted by that site. Use the menus in the left column, and see “Finding Books in HathiTrust” below for tips.
3. OCLC WorldCat is “the world’s largest library catalog”, according to its website. Its primary purpose is to find physical books and materials at nearby libraries, but it is very useful for identifying titles.
B. Bibliographies on our Website
There are two ways our website can help you with subject searches of books:
1. We have a variety of published bibliographies and reading lists for many topics in the Century Past Library, starting at section 016 Bibliographies of works from specific subjects.
2. Many of the books in our two libraries, Century Past Free Online Library and History of the Great Lakes States, contain bibliographies at the back. You’ll need to browse through the books at the appropriate subject page to check for bibliographies. Academic books most often have them.
Carrying out a Subject Search for Magazine Articles
I have not yet found an online search engine useful for finding public domain magazine articles, so I use online scanned copies of old published indexes. Links to several such indexes and lists of periodicals are in Century Past Library at section 050.1 Indexes to Periodicals. For “general” periodicals (not devoted to a professional or technical discipline), the best indexes are Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature for magazines published 1802-1900, and The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature for magazines published 1900-1922. Both indexes can also be searched for authors.
When you find an article of interest, make a note of the magazine name, volume number, date and pages. Magazine names are abbreviated in the entries; you’ll find a list of the full magazine names at the front of every index volume. Next you need to find the online location of the volume of the magazine where the article is located. The quickest way is to check our Century Past page 050 General serials (Magazines) & their indexes. At the magazine entries found there, the button(s) will take you to all issues I found on the internet. If the magazine is not shown there, search for the title in HathiTrust.org. You may need to review all results for that magazine title, because some links lead to pages with only a few volumes of the magazine. If you don’t find the magazine in HathiTrust, try Archive.org and Google.com.
Carrying Out Book Searches at Internet Archive
- Enter a short title or the first part of a long title, with the last name of the author if you have it. You may also just use key words from the title. Word order doesn’t seem to matter, nor does case (capital letters).
- Omit punctuation marks, such as semi-colons or commas, if they are in the title.
- Omit the first name or first initials of the author.
- Be careful not to misspell words or names.
Unsatisfactory Search Results
Zero results might mean that archive.org does not have the book, but it might also mean there is something in your search input that differs from the book’s entry data at Internet Archive.
- Check for misspellings in your entry.
- Revise your search term to include only key words from the title.
- Try searching for the author, without including the book name.
Reviewing Search Results
- When you have satisfactory results, the book you want may appear several times, possibly scattered among other results.
- The various entries for one book may be different copies of the same book, individual volumes of a multi-volume book, or different editions. You’ll need to open them for more information.
Downloading or Online Reading
- Selecting a book from Search Results opens the book to this view.
- Clicking the magnifying glass to the right of the book opens the book in dual-page mode in the online viewer. Clicking the full-page icon has the same effect.
- Clicking the book name at the top-left of the screen exits the viewer.
- Scrolling down reveals book info and download options.
The Online Viewer
- Commands for using the viewer are at the bottom of the screen. Note the little hand on the slider (bottom-left corner) that enables easy navigation through the book.
- Click the first rectangle to view a single page. Use of single-page mode allows you to keep enlarging the page until you get maximum clarity, and also allows you to scroll down through the pages with your mouse-wheel.
Finding Books in HathiTrust
The search box in HathiTrust seems more forgiving than the search box in Internet Archive. For example, it may turn up useful results even with a misspelled word. Typing in a full title usually puts your book on the first page, if the book is on the site.
This is an excellent search engine for subject searches, although the results will only include materials found on HathiTrust. In the left column there are many ways to “refine results”.
There is a log-in button, but you don’t need to log in. Above the search entry box are the tabs “Full-Text” and “Catalog”. Choose “Catalog” because “Full-Text” will swamp you with thousands of marginally useful results.
Search Results Screen
- Above the first entry you can choose between “All Items” and “Only Full View“. Select the latter to see only the items available online.
- There are often several entries for your book. These may be different copies of the same book or different editions. Clicking on “Catalog Record” will provide further info.
- Clicking “Full View” in the Search Results screen or the Catalog Record screen opens the online viewer.
Downloading or Reading Online
- You’ll have to read online, as most books at HathiTrust cannot be downloaded by users, except those “affiliated with partner institutions” (for more on that, see HathiTrust‘s “About” page). Even they apparently can only download in PDF mode, and using books in PDF files can be cumbersome.
- Command Icon buttons are at the left of the opened page. Hover the mouse over them to see names.
- The “Page by Page” button shows the digitized reproduction of the page. “Plain Text” switches to OCR text. Plain Text mode allows you to copy and paste text from a page.
Finding books at Google Books
Use the search box either at Google Search or Google Books. Results in the latter are limited to materials contained in Google Books.
Entries usually show the publication year of that version. The thumbnail or icon of the book often does not resemble the actual book cover.
Downloading and Viewing
- Many ebooks on Google Books are not free. Of those books with a cost, some allow free access to portions of the book. On the viewer screen, check the space on the top left, above the book icon, for information about access.
- For free books, download options vary. Some books allow only PDF or plain-text download, while some books provide options for e-reader formats. These options are found under the gear icon at the top right.
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