Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Using Google Books to Discover the Past by Sandra Ardoin

I was a late-comer to the Internet. Oftentimes, I wonder what I did without it—specifically, Google. You know … when in doubt, Google it.

As a writer of historicals set in the 19th century, I have no first-hand knowledge of life in the 1800s (no wise-cracks, please), so I can get bogged down when it comes to research. One of my favorite sources for knowledge is Google Books. Putting aside the lawsuits regarding copyright infringement, as of 2013, Google had scanned in information about, or the full text of, over 20,000,000 books. Wikipedia says 30,000,000.

The texts of their public domain books and magazines are precious to my searches. For instance, if I decide I want my 1890 character to decorate a room for Christmas, I’ll click on the little books icon in my browser, add a subject like “Christmas decorations,” and click “Search Books.” It will bring up pages and pages of books and magazines with those words and highlight them for me.

But I don’t necessarily want current books. I may not want books from the early part of the 19th century either. To narrow my search, I’ll click on “Search Tools” at the top. From there, I’m given a choice of three different centuries or a custom search in the “From” and “To” (whatever years I add.) I may only want to view what was popular from 1875 to 1890. Under “Any Document,” I’m also given the chance to choose between books and magazines. Doing a Google Books Advanced Search allows you to add even more specific information to narrow the search.

Additional advantages:

  • Use the cutting tool to outline portions you want to save. Rather than the whole book, I usually only need a small paragraph, or one page, or a line that contains the information to make my story pop with accuracy. That’s when I’ll use the cutting tool to paste the information onto a page with my research notes. I always want to be able to go back and find the information easily.
  • While searching, I’ll sometimes (okay, usually) run across books or magazines I find interesting and ones I want to read later, even if they don’t have the particular information I’m looking for at the time. So I won’t forget about it, I have the option to add that book to my library. 
  • I’ll also use Google Books to look for certain words or phrases. If I think it’s something that might not have been used during my time period, or used in a different context, I’ll check for sources that might include the term I’m looking for.
  • The ads in old magazines and periodicals are priceless. Most include a section at the end or throughout the pages devoted to advertising, just as they do today. You might find something fun to add to your story.  
  • When I wrote A Reluctant Melody, I found a Branson's business directory. It included the various businesses in towns in my setting's area. It gave the churches and pastors, mayors, aldermen, etc. It gave me the information I needed to build my own town and include the types of businesses one would find, along with the type of law enforcement, the landscape and agricultural products. It was invaluable. 
There are many ways to use Google Books for research, and I keep learning more.

Have you tried it? How do you use it? What is the most surprising thing you've learned from a Google Books search?


Sandra Ardoin writes inspirational historical romance, such as her Christmas novella, The Yuletide Angel and the January 2016 release of A Reluctant Melody. She’s the married mother of a young adult and lives in North Carolina.

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