Google Books tips and tricks by a librarian

One visitor to my blog, commented that she couldn’t make heads or tails of my postings because it was too technical and obscure (opensearch plugins??).

To remedy that, I’m going to post some ” beginner” level posts that should be accessible to everyone. I’m going to post a series of research tips that might be helpful to less experienced users

Google books

Did you know that Google has digitalized and scanned in full-text of over 7 million books (they recently added magazines) through a service called Google books? You might in fact, come across links to Google books results while searching regular Google or Google scholar, but I personally prefer to search Google books direct if I am looking for a book.

Why you should use Google books.

Our library catalogue search (LINC) is great, but our library records contain only metadata relating to books. By metadata, I mean for each book, our library records contain summary information of the book (technical term here is surrogate record). This typically includes title, author, subject, isbn, short summaries and occasionally table of contents. Below shows a typical record in the catalogue (this time with table of contents).

All this is great, but what if the information you are searching for is in a short paragraph extract that isn’t in any of those places? Then your search will miss it! This is where Google books shines, it has scanned in every word of each book and all of it is search-able!

As long as the term you searched  for appears in the book, Google books will find it!

Why Google book can’t replace the library

As you might expect, while Google books will allow you to find books where your searched terms appears in, in most cases it will not allow you to actually read the whole book when you click on the link. There are in fact 3 scenarios (a 4th scenario is where there is just a bibliography) when you click on the link.

1. Full view

Occasionally, you will be able to see the full text of the book. This occurs typically for very old books that are in public domain and are out of copyright or in rare cases where the publisher has allowed Google books to display the whole text. You can also download the whole book as pdf.

2. Limited Preview

In most cases, publishers have allowed Google to display only parts of the book, so you will only be able to view parts of the book (pages might be missing) , and also to a maximum of X number of pages  , where X is set by the publisher.

Below shows a book with limited preview, pages 543-544 are omitted from display.

3. Snipplet view

Certain books are viewable only in snipplet view, you can only see a few lines of text, sufficient to see your search terms in context. See below.

How to use Google Books creatively

My experience is that most books you want will not be in “full view” but rather in “Limited Preview”. Despite these limitations Google books can be a powerful search tool. Here’s how you can use it to your advantage.

#1 Preview the book first to see if you want it, before coming down to borrow it.

Use Google books to quickly see if the book is worth borrowing (read sample chapters, do a search within text to see if the results look interesting etc) in the comfort of your home before coming down to the library to borrow it.

# 2 Read

portions of the book if item is  checked out.

Looking for a RBR book or a popular book that is checked out and you need it desperately?  You can place a hold, but what do you do in the meantime? If you are looking only for a chapter , you might get lucky and Google books in limited preview might allow you to  read the whole chapter. If not, reading parts of it, might be better than nothing until you finally get the book.

#3 Harness the power of full-text search to find items that you might have missed otherwise (general).

If your search terms are not getting many results in the library catalog, try searching in Google books. You will get more results for sure, because Google books will match books as long as the terms appears anywhere in the text and not just in the title, author, subject or summaries for Library catalogue searches.

Typically the most relevant results that appear in Google books, but not in the catalogue search will be chapter titles. Sadly while some of our catalogue records incorporate table of contents, not all of them do yet.

I also find this feature particularly useful for searching for very obscure and rare terms that don’t merit a whole book or even chapter written on it.

#4 Finding specific statistics

Looking for some obscure piece of statistic? I have found that Google book search is perfect for hunting for obscure statistics. Typically all you need is just the table or chart, so you don’t want or need to read the whole book anyway. Try searching for example food subsidy as percentage of gdp in India. We have many of the books listed in our library, but why borrow the whole book, when all you need is just one page?

You could of course just do a normal google web search, but then you would have to spend time figuring out if the website you found it is reliable or not (Warning! books are generally more reliable than any random website if they have gone through editorial review and control, but not all books are equally creditable!)

#5  Finding book citations and biographies

Want to see which books cited or mentioned a journal article or book you are interested in? Do a search in Google books and compare the results when you search for an article name in quotes in Google books with the cited reference search of the same article in Scopus. See the difference?

#6  Finding a book whose title you can’t recall.

Trying vainly to recall the title of a book you have read or borrowed in the past, and you haven’t had the foresight to turn on our my reading history feature . If you can remember some of the more unique words in the book , the year etc, Google books (advanced search) might help. Trying adding as much information as you can to narrow it down as much as possible.

#7 Downloading full-text of older books in pdf

If you are a history buff, you are in luck! Many of the oldest texts are obviously in public domain now, and are available in full view mode. You can view and download the whole item in pdf. Take a look at the following item which is in our rare book collection , but you can download the full text in pdf here . If you just want to look at books available in full view mode, use the advanced search to restrict searches to books with only full view.

#8 Search Google books with Android and iPhone

For Android and iPhone users you can now use Google books at the mobile site here !

#9 Learn to use the advanced search features of Google scholar to limit the search

Given that google books searches every word in every text out there, if you are not careful you are going to get thousands of hits. Google Books tries to rank what it considers most relevant at the top, but it is helpful if you know how to restrict searches  to get exactly what you need. There are many wonderful guides out there (e.g here and here) on this so I won’t elaborate  further.

#10 Secret tip

Every tip and tricks page needs to end in a round of 10. This last secret tip I discovered by accident. I will only reveal it if there are more than 5 real,sensible comments (I get to decide what counts) from 5 different users.  But I seriously doubt it will happen.

Until next time.

Aaron Tay