When I started writing historical fiction seriously (approximately 1995) I was still on the faculty at the University of Michigan. This meant that I had a fantastic library as my disposal. Faculty could (and probably still can) send an email or call and say, here’s a list of books and articles I need. Later that day, the books would arrive at your office door. The article would be copied and delivered, too, even if it had to come from another library.
You could keep the book as long as you needed it, unless it was recalled because somebody else wanted to look at it. I held onto some books for the full ten-plus years I was there. If it turned out to be no use to me, I’d make a pile and leave the pile for the library to pick up.
Spoiled? You betcha. And blissfully happy.
Then I left academia andfor a good long while I was really stuck. In the early 2000s, there was not much available online. I ended up buying a couple hundred books — some of them which turned out to be no use to me — and paying for the copying of hundreds of articles. Some books were simply out of my budget range. Sometimes I was able to get a banged up reading copy. Thacher’s New American Dispensatory (1802) was something I really needed, but the copies I found were all between $500 and $3,000. I eventually got hold of a so-called reading copy, which means the book is in such bad shape that it’s not really collectible. I paid $60 for it, and it was well worth the expense.
In general though, this process of tracking down references was frustrating to the extreme, not to mention expensive. If I wanted to collect books, I would not be complaining. In fact, many of the books I need I would like to have in hard cover, but this is for research and I don’t need the beautiful tooled leather and gilded edges.
I keep thinking I could put at least fifty books up for sale at Amazon or Ebay or one of the bigger used-book conglomerates. Eventually I’ll do that. But even if I regained a good portion of what I spent, that wouldn’t address the bigger problem. Public libraries are generally really good about inter-library loans, but the things I need are often so unusual and rare that the ILL system soon sways under the burden..
And then Google Books came along. Google decided to scan books — all books, every book they could get) and make them available and searchable online. This caused huge (and well founded) consternation among authors like me, who pay the mortgage with royalty checks. If you could read The Pajama Girls for Lambert Square for free, would you buy a copy? Most people would not. So the Authors Guild stepped in and the lawyers got busy and in the end there was an agreement and a settlement. The Electric Frontier Foundation summarizes the situation (read the whole article here):
First, this agreement is likely to change forever the way that we find and browse for books, particularly out-of-print books. Google has already scanned more than 7 million books, and plans to scan millions more. This agreement will allow Google to get close to its original goal of including all of those books into Google’s search results (publishers got some concessions, however, for in-print books). In addition to search, scanned public domain books will be available for free PDF download (as they are today). But the agreement goes beyond Google’s Book Search by permitting access, as well. Unless authors specifically opt out, books that are out-of-print but still copyrighted will be available for “preview” (a few pages) for free, and for full access for a fee. In-print books will be available for access only if rightsholders affirmatively opt in. The upshot: Google users will have an unprecedented ability to search (for free) and access (for a fee) books that formerly lived only in university libraries.
This is the best thing to happen to historical novelists, ever. And here’s how it works. Say you are writing a novel set in 19th century Boston, and the central character is a woman with three children and a philandering husband. She’s expecting her fourth, and worried. You call up Google Book’s advanced search screen and enter some keywords in different combinations including Boston, housekeeping, childrearing, birth, midwifery, budgeting, manners, etiquette, marriage
You get back a list of books that will fall into one of three categories:
(1) snippet view means that the book is still in print and that the author and/or publisher is not allowing anything of any length to be shown on Google Books. However, you might just find something you really want to look at. In that case you can use the resources on the book’s information page to find it in a library or at a bookstore.
(2) limited preview means that there will be some whole pages and passages available for you to read. You might be able to rule out the book at that point, or again, look for a copy to buy.
(3) full means just that: the book is out of copyright, and so Google Books is making it available to you. The whole scanned book. You can download it as a pdf, or read it on line.
Of course this is fantastic for the historical novelist in and of itself, but there’s more. Here’s a book that might be of interest, available in full:
You could download it straight away, but first you havea closer look. Use the search function, read the “about” and “favorites passages” sections. In the end the book isn’t something you really need, but you do run across a couple passages you’d like to put into your notes. Just a few years ago you’d have no choice but to type those passages into a word processing screen. Now you can either look at the page images, or ask for plain text. Plain text gives you just that. The whole book has been run through OCR (optical character recognition) and so you can highlight and copy passages to put into your notes. In this case:
As to the yearling aristocracy, that branch includes a number of individuals who have neither manners nor character to boast of; nothing, in fact, but their money. Vulgar, violent, robust, and hardhearted. Many of these persons, notwithstanding the worship paid to the great god Mammon, and the glory reflected upon all those who seem to be his favorite, have yet so begrimed themselves in their struggle after wealth, and are naturally so unamiable, and their manners so gross, that though each one has his circle, larger or smaller, of dependants and ‘toadies,’ they find no admission for themselves into the two-year-old circle above alluded to. There are others, lucky fellows, and honest enough, as the world goes, but too rough and rude for fashionable drawing-rooms; and others yet, persevering old fellows, who have grown rich by long assiduous industry, who retain all the simple and economical habits of their childhood, snap their fingers at show and display, and who look upon fashion and its attendant extravagance with indifference, disgust, or contempt.
You might decide you do want a pdf of the full book on your hard drive, but when you need to find something particular in that book, you’ll have to go back to the Google Books page to use the search function. Given the fact that thousands of otherwise invisible books are available to you, this seems like a small problem. You’ll have to spend some time searching before you really understand the depths of material that are now available to you. Experiment with advanced searches. Ask for books published before 1800, for example, or restrict your search to only those books that are available in full (though this means you will miss a lot of great references to more recently published work).
Here’s a selection of what I came up with in a few minutes. This is a great resource, but be warned: it’s the ultimate time-sink, too.
The Universal Cook 1792
Plantation Life Before Emancipation 1892 (revisionist history, not easy to read)
Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents 1880