Google Book Search: What Can It Do For You?

Image representing Google Book Search as depic...
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These days, when I search on most any topic, I will try the free methods first and the pay methods second. I am doing this for a few reasons: to improve my cost efficiencies; to test out results between free and paid sources; to cover all bases from different angles; etc., etc., and, etc.

I am finding lately that more and more of my searches in Google yield results from Google Book Search. Most denizens on-line, and many off-line, will recognize the association between Google and books and may even recall that there is some ginormous settlement looming out there. But what does the marriage of Google and books mean for the researcher in concrete terms?  Ever curious, I decided to do a little deeper digging into that resource and its mechanics.

First, what is it? Google Book Search offers full-text searching of the books that Google has collected and scanned into its database. The best figure I could find reveals more than 1.5 million works. Please feel free to post more accurate figures in the comments – the number obviously is growing by the minute!

Google Book Search operates like a regular Web search, but limits results to the Google collection. If a book is out of copyright or the author has given Google permission, the searcher can see a preview or, in some cases, the full text. Books in the public domain may be downloaded free. Google has created reference pages for its books, with reviews, relevant info, web references and other key data. There are links for purchasing or borrowing the books. The database includes magazines as well. Google is actively seeking book partners – authors and publishers looking to promote their books for free on Google- and library partners including some of the largest brick and mortar institutions. Google points out that it is trying to create a “comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.” No mean goal, indeed.

As with most Google search applications, there are advanced search features. You can peruse all books, limited previews and full views or full view only. You can filter for just books, just magazines or all content. You can search by language, title, author, publisher, subject, publication date, ISBN and ISSN.

Google Book Search started as Google Print and has been around since late 2004. It is still in beta, which is not surprising as Google likes to keep its features in beta for a long, long time (GMail anyone?). It is not the only option out there for digital collections: Microsoft had its own book search, abandoned in 2008, which is now maintained by the Internet Archive. Europeana offers digital “objects”, including manuscripts and artworks. Gallica is a project of the French National Library and is growing at the rate of approximately 5,000 new docs a month. Want the ability to identify specific articles in specific issues of a journal? Try Google Scholars. But Google Books is by far the largest repository of written works at this time.

If you are interested in finding out more about Google Book Search itself, check out this bibliography by Charles W. Bailey, Jr. Pandia Search Engine News has a quick post offering some links of interest, including easy introductory articles on the subject. Google’s own About page is here.

What can Google Book Search do for you, the legal researcher? Well, obviously, Google cannot guarantee it is providing you with a curated database of ALL legal research materials.  Nonetheless, it can be a most helpful tool in your virtual tool belt and shouldn’t be overlooked.

For example, I recently was researching the treatment of fairly arcane exclusionary language in certain crime coverages. Instead of taking my usual tack – enter Westlaw, search the various databases for cases and treatises and other collected materials – I ran a search on the main Google page. High in the results were entries in the Google Books database highlighting my language. These included several, quite-specific treatises on crime coverages. Although I could not pull the entire works down, I could read the sections pertinent to my language. From that, I was able to determine the primary cases on the issue. Even better, the results actually pulled the relevant page from one of West’s own Reporters with some of the main cases. I didn’t know Google Books included West Reporters!

To cross-check, I ran my same questions on Westlaw. Pretending that I didn’t already have the knowledge gleaned from my Google search and using more steps in Westlaw than needed in Google, I ultimately found the cases (but not the treatises) and got my answer.

Would I recommend that the researcher abandon Westlaw or Lexis and rely solely on Google Book Search?  No way, Jose! I owe it to my client (and to my own thorough sensibilities) to ensure that the pool I am fishing from is the largest, most complete body of water available. But, would I recommend that the researcher include a Google Book Search early in the search strategy? You betcha!

I am not going to enter the lively debate regarding Google Book Search, the settlement and copyright concerns here. I will point the interested reader to Google’s take the Google Books Settlement Agreement here and a recent article regarding Amazon’s objections to the settlement at PC World here. The news and blog entries on this topic are overwhelming and could take far longer to peruse than it took for me to find some great answers on my topic in Google Books. Is Google Books “good” or “bad” in the long run? I urge you to give it a trial run,  read up on the debate, and make your own mind up. And, as always, feel free to express your own point of view here in the Studio!

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3 comments on “Google Book Search: What Can It Do For You?

  1. Interesting timing of this post Martha — I got pinged by Lexis this week with an in-depth questionnaire asking in detail about use of free search engines, free legal search sites, free legal content, et c. I am betting that Lexis and Westlaw are starting to get a little nervous with the volume of material becoming more easily available for free even with niche information services like legal research …

  2. Pingback: Google Book Search: What Can It Do For You? « Advocate's Studio | bookreports

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