Finding Books Online or In-Print

Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase

24 March 2008. One of the best kept secrets of the online world is that books still have relevance in research. Searchers generally believe the information they seek is, or ought to be, available on the Web - easy to find and free. If they think about books at all, they perceive them as more troublesome to access because they have to trek to the library or purchase them.

Yet doing so may actually save you hours of research time. In an age when information overload seriously affects the productivity of many lawyers, the profession needs better research skills as well as specific strategies for discovering certain types of information. This article addresses part of this challenge: It examines resources and strategies for finding books and book content.

How to Find a Book

Prior to launching any search, a researcher should give thought to potential sources of information. If you seek explanatory information on a topic or step-by-step guidance about how to accomplish something, then your research should encompass books.

Searching for relevant books entails 2 different methods. Let's call them the online method for books whose content is available electronically (for a fee or for free) and the in-print method for books available only in the traditional format. The strategy or strategies you follow depend on what you know and what you want.

WorldCat lets you search the collections of more than 10,000 member libraries around the world.

First, assess what you know. Are you an expert in, or knowledgeable about, the subject? If so, identify the authors or titles likely to assist your research. The next step for a subject expert is to determine whether the books exist online unless what you want is a book in hand.

If you are not a subject expert, it would behoove you to take advantage of expert tools to identify books on the subject of interest. The original expert tool - the library catalog - remains the best resource for this particular purpose. Fortunately, you no longer have to trek to the library to access it.

As a quick side note, ongoing or thorough research should also include newer technologies such as tagging. Both and LibraryThing utilize a combination of traditional indexing and tagging to categorize books. With respect to traditional indexing, Amazon appears to have developed its own subject index, whereas LibraryThing uses Library of Congress Subject Headings.

The In-Print Method

To take full advantage of Library of Congress Subject Headings, a researcher's first stop should be either the Web site of a local library with a relevant collection (the local university law library) or the relatively new WorldCat Web 2.0 interface to OCLC's network of library resources.

WorldCat lets you search the collections of more than 10,000 member libraries around the world. While books comprise a large part of the database, you may also search for media such as movies, music, downloadable audio books and other digital content. WorldCat queries may even produce direct links to articles residing in databases accessible via membership in certain libraries.

You may search WorldCat without registering. But (free) registration will give you access to features that let you create lists or build a bibliography.

To begin searching, first select the tab for the type of media desired - everything or books, DVDs, CDs or articles. You may search by keyword using the default interface, which queries all the information available about an item. Or follow the link for "advanced search" to query certain fields or limit the results.

Suppose you want to find resources on pretexting or the practice of obtaining personal information under false pretenses. Under the Everything tab, enter the keyword, pretexting.

The search yields a handful of results, which you may sort by relevance, author, title or date. The initial results display the author, title, publisher, language, publication date, format (book, Internet resource) and, if relevant, the journal title and database. You may opt to refine a query with the qualifiers that appear on the left-hand side of the page.

To broaden or narrow the search, review the subject headings that appear in the full record. You may do this by following the title links and then selecting the Subject tab.

Pretexting -- United States happens to be a Library of Congress Subject Heading. You may follow the link to find all resources indexed under this heading. Note that this method may not find database content (articles) because databases generally do not index content by Library of Congress Subject Headings. They may, however, utilize some other standardized index. (See the explanation under the heading, What are Library of Congress Subject Headings?)

While following the link for the subject heading, Pretexting -- United States, narrows the search results in this instance, you might expand them by following a broader term, such as Identity Theft -- United States.

Once you identify the materials of interest, the next step entails discovering where or how you may obtain access to them. WorldCat lets you enter your zip code or city and state to find libraries in your area that have the item. If the material is available online (database articles, for example), and if you are a member of the library, usually you may display them by entering your library card number and password.

If you are not a member of the resulting libraries, take the information to your local public library (or any library where you are a member) and request an interlibrary loan. This process takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the location and availability of the materials.

The Online Method

Finding book content online requires more search skill and knowledge of potential resources. Whereas WorldCat, or your local library catalog, provides a single method for finding books worldwide or in your immediate area, there is no single resource for finding book content online.

Again, it's best to begin with your local library (or local specialized collection). University and special libraries (law, medicine), in particular, often catalog book content available electronically, whether in CD-ROM or DVD format, in a database or via a fee-based Web site.

Once you exhaust this resource, and assuming you want to go beyond what you have found, consider first what you know about the potential resources. Have you identified certain authors or titles? Do you have access (directly, or through your library) to special online research systems, such as LexisNexis or Westlaw? Are certain publishers likely to publish books on the topic?

While your library has resources that will assist you in determining whether the books you identify are available online, you may do some searching yourself. Sometimes searching the author and title in Google will turn up an online source. The query, Larson on Employment Discrimination, for example, retrieves the Searchable Directory of Online Sources at LexisNexis, where you may discover the availability of this title on Lexis.

If you know the publisher, check its Web site. Some publishers are experimenting with making books available - in whole or in part - online.

You might also check e-book booksellers, such as Diesel eBooks or With the success of its Kindle device, Amazon now also sells a number of books in electronic format.

Once you identify potential titles at Amazon, you may search their content, if the publisher allows it. Moreover, if the keywords you enter in the main search box are uncommon, they will yield results directly from inside a book.

Google Book Search also enables searching inside a book. But whether or not you can display the relevant content depends on the copyright status of the book or the deal Google has with the publisher.

Finally, if the book you seek is in the public domain (copyright free), there are several search engines designed to help you find it.

Research by the Book

When conducting research on a topic, or when you seek explanatory text, keep in mind that one or two books may provide the information you need. You could search for similar information on the free Web, but what you find may not be complete, authoritative or accurate. Moreover, finding it may require more actual time searching.

To avoid wasting precious time, I suggest setting a limit on the time you spend searching the free Web - no more than 30 minutes for finding substantive information on a topic. If you reach the limit and are dissatisfied with the results, try searching for books using the strategies in this article.