This is the second post in our new series, Library Hacks, where we take a look at cool and interesting online resources from the Smithsonian Libraries and the cyberworld at large.
Are you giving or getting an eReader this holiday season? Maybe you are one of the millions already using smartphones or tablets to access just about everything online. In my humble librarian opinion, one of the greatest uses for such devices is free downloadable books! Of course, you can and should check your local public library to find ebooks to borrow, but there are lots of websites offering access to ebooks, too. However, not all such sites give free access! Many, like Amazon.com, offer ebooks for sale only. So I thought I'd highlight some of the biggest and best sites for finding free ebooks — which won't put an extra squeeze on your holiday budget.
Project Gutenberg was the first provider of free full-text ebooks. Its founder Michael S. Hart, who passed away earlier this year, invented ebooks in 1971, so this is really the granddaddy of free downloadable book sites. It currently offers access to over 36,000 titles, but that number increases to over 100,000 ebooks when you include Project Gutenberg’s partners around the world. These books were all previously released by established publishers, which means you won’t just find a bunch of fan fiction self-published by some guy obsessed with Batman. Also, all of the ebooks uploaded by Project Gutenberg have been diligently proofread by volunteers to limit typos/errors.
Project Gutenberg offers a simple book search feature to search by title, author or subject. You can also browse the bookshelves if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. It’s fun to scan all the topics covered –- everything from children’s picture books (many with full-color illustrations) to cookery (lots of recipes!) to German language books (das ist gut!). Keep in mind -– these ebooks are available for free because their U.S. copyright has expired. But this means you won’t be able to access the current New York Times bestsellers here.
No fee or registration is required, and these ebooks can be downloaded to your PC, eReader, tablet, most smartphones, and even some MP3 players and gaming systems. Easy-to-follow instructions are available to help you figure it all out.
The goal of Open Library, an initiative of the Internet Archive, is stated simply: One web page for every book ever published. But this definitely is not a simple task! So far the site has over 20 million edition records, and new records are constantly being added. This is truly an open project, with information being contributed by a wide variety of libraries. Individual people also are encouraged to participate by adding and/or fixing book records, writing book descriptions, adding book cover images, or editing nearly any page on the site.
Open Library offers direct access to over 1 million free ebooks in a variety of formats (PDF, plain text, ePub, DjVu, MOBi, DAISY, and "Send to Kindle"). And it's easy to use — a simple search box is offered at the top of each page on the Open Library site. Right below that, you will find a small check box to limit your search to only ebooks. You also can browse on the Accessible Books page to see what is available for free. Open Library even has its own Lending Library with over 10,000 ebook titles available to borrow, one copy at a time for two weeks. These include mainly 20th century works which might be hard to find elsewhere online for free. For example, I found The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, a book I've been wanting to read, which I was able to borrow, even though it's not offered for free download here or on other sites.
Another great service from Open Library is the availability of books in Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) format. DAISY presents written material in an audible format for people with print disabilities such as blindness, impaired vision, and dyslexia. Details on accessing DAISY books are provided in Open Library's FAQ section, and a list of all the devices that can read DAISY files is available at daisy.org.
This is one of the less well known ebook sources, but it's particularly valuable for research. The mission of the HathiTrust is "to contribute to the common good by collecting, organizing, preserving, communicating, and sharing the record of human knowledge." It is a partnership of over 60 major research institutions and libraries worldwide, and the HathiTrust Digital Library brings together their collections to be preserved in digital form for posterity. In fact, the name "Hathi" comes from the Hindi word for elephant, an animal known for its long memory.
It is important to realize that currently the main focus for this organization is preservation, not necessarily free public access. So while the HathiTrust has digitized nearly 10 million volumes (including both books and journals), only about a quarter of them are available free online — a total of about 2.5 million volumes, mostly ones in the public domain. Also, these items are offered only in PDF format, which is a less eReader-friendly format than some of those available at the other ebook sites mentioned in this post.
The search options allow you to do a catalog search by title, author, subject, etc., and you can check a box to limit it to full view only (meaning complete books you can read online or download in PDF). A handy feature for doing research is the full-text search option, which allows you to look for terms within the full-text of all 10 million+ volumes that the HathiTrust has digitized. While you can't access the full-text of them all, you can determine if your search term shows up only once or multiple times in the volume, which can help you decide if it might be a resource worth tracking down for your research.
Did you know that digitizing books was part of the driving force behind the creation of Google? Back in 1996, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were computer science graduate students working on a project about digital libraries and the use of a “web crawler” to search through the contents of electronic books. Google certainly grew way beyond this idea, but it wasn’t forgotten — it evenutally became Google Books. The ultimate goal for Google Books is to scan all the books in the world, allowing people to easily search for and find the books they need. While this goal is still far off, Google Books reports that it has already scanned over 15 million books in over 400 languages.
Now a caveat — most of these books are not available in full-text for free. Where possible, Google Books does provide free access, mainly for books that are in the public domain because the copyright has expired, or those where the copyright holder has given permission for free access. Most of these scanned books give access to only part of the text, along with links to find libraries that hold physical copies of the book or sources that sell copies. Keep in mind that, unlike the other ebook providers included in this post which are nonprofits, Google is a profit-making venture. And there has been some debate about whether Google Books should be allowed to provide even limited access to books that are still protected by copyright.
That said, Google Books is still a good resource for finding books you are interested in. It lets you browse by broad subect areas, or you can use a simple search box to search for specific words. Like the HathiTrust, this site also offers the capability of looking for terms within the full text of all its scanned books, even if the entire text is not available for free download. Your search will take you to where your term appears within the book, providing access to a limited section surrounding that term (the amount of surrounding material you can see will vary, depending upon the copyright holder's agreement with Google). This can help you determine if the book seems to be relevant to your subject and may be worth trying to find in a library or for sale if it's not available to download.
Google Books also offers both iPhone/iPad and Android apps that sync automatically with your own account on the site, as well as different formats for use with eReaders, making it even easier to take ebooks with you.
Have you used any of these sites to download books? If so, what did you find there? Where else have you gone to get your ebook fix? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below. And if you're giving an eReader as a gift, be sure to let the recipient know about these free ebook sites to get the most out of their new gadget!
Happy Holidays from the Library Hacks!