I love Google Books

It can really be a chore to track down old papers. While many journals have digitized their collections and placed them online, a subscription is often required to access old papers (even from the 19th century!)*. That’s if the paper you’re looking for was published in a journal that still exists, of course. There are plenty of journals that have gone defunct or are otherwise unavailable, a sad fact that keeps important papers out of the hands of students and scientists today.

[*This really aggravates me. Shouldn't these papers, in many cases nearly 100 years old or more, be freely available? The merits of open access for new papers might be debatable, but I see no reason why journals should continue to charge high prices for work that otherwise would be in the public domain.]

Enter Google Books. While many of the papers by naturalists like T.H. Huxley are cordoned off behind subscription walls, there used to be a practice of collecting the complete technical papers of scientists and publishing them in a series of volumes. (A practice which I wish would be resurrected!) These books are hard to find outside of libraries today, but thanks to digitization projects many of them have wound up as free pdfs on Google Books. Because they are so old, the copyright on the books is expired, allowing anyone to download the complete scientific works of a number of important researchers.

Previously it would require large sums of money (either for purchasing rare books or visiting libraries where they were kept) to access these volumes, but now you can download them to your computer at no cost. What’s more, you can even search for particular subjects, so if you’re looking for mentions of Archaeopteryx in books published between 1870 and 1925 (as I was yesterday), you can quickly call up a list of every book uploaded so far from that time period that says anything about Archaeopteryx.

Indeed, Google Books presents substantial potential benefits to scientists and historians. Without open access to these old documents, for instance, I would not have been able to write a paper about T.H. Huxley’s thoughts on the association between dinosaurs and birds. I also would not have been able to track down new references (many of which I have not seen cited elsewhere) for my own book project.

Specifically, it was with no small degree of excitement that I uncovered several treasures yesterday. I have long been interested in tracking down the work of the famed Canadian paleontologist Lawrence Lambe, but I was never able to find any of his papers. I had seen his name mentioned plenty of times but I was tired of summaries; I wanted to read his work, particularly on Gorgosaurus. Yesterday I hit the mother lode. Apparently in his library the paleontologist William Diller Matthew had a copy of the Collected Memoirs of Lawrence M. Lambe, which was contained in the University of California library. It was recently scanned, and I was happy to find that the volume collected many of Lambe’s post-1900 papers. (I can only hope that there are other volumes with some of his earlier work.) Unfortunately some of the illustrations were not properly scanned, but I was happy to finally have a look at the Gorgosaurus paper that I had been after for so long.

I also stumbled across some collected papers of H.F. Osborn, but the real “prize” that had so long eluded my grasp was William Beebe’s paper on the “Tetrapteryx.” Inspired by some quills he saw on the leg of a pigeon, Beebe supposed that prior to Archaeopteryx there was a bird ancestor that had flight feathers on the fore- and hindlimbs, making it four-winged (hence the name “Tetrapteryx”). The similarities between Beebe’s speculative avian ancestor and recently discovered feathered dinosaurs like Microraptor and Pedopenna are striking, and I have tried to find a copy of his paper for quite some time. Unfortunately the journal containing the paper (Zoologica) went under and so there is no online archive, but it was collected in a volume of papers from the journal and now anyone can download a copy of it.

There are bugs in the system, of course. Not all scans are high quality, and in many cases there are problems with links and search terms. Such minor annoyances aside, Google Books is an excellent resource that I sincerely hope will continue to grow and improve. I could not engage in the research I do without it, and I think it provides plenty of previously hard-to-access fodder for historians of science. There is a greater well of resources available than I could have imagined, and regardless of whether you’re a researcher or bibliophile, I highly encourage you to make use of this fantastic resource.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    September 18, 2008

    For its flaws, Google Scholar has also been a great asset. I don’t deal so much with historical topics (at least, not on a daily basis), but being able to pull up the PDFs of journal articles which authors have saved on their own websites, thereby bypassing paywalls, has been quite helpful.

    While many of the papers by naturalists like T.H. Huxley are cordoned off behind subscription walls, there used to be a practice of collecting the complete technical papers of scientists and publishing them in a series of volumes. (A practice which I wish would be resurrected!)

    I wonder what happened to it.

  2. #2 Laelaps
    September 18, 2008

    Indeed, Blake, Google Scholar is primarily the reason why I have about 3,000 papers on my hard drive right now. I try to take advantage of the subscriptions Rutgers holds when I can, but the authors who post their papers independently definitely are a big help, too.

    I think the downfall of the “Collected Works” and “Scientific Memoirs” was caused by copyrights being held by journals rather than authors and the increasing propensity for there to be multiple authors on papers. In the 1800′s you had people working independently to produce literature which was read before a Society and then discussed. Those forums are largely gone now, journals being the primary places of discussion. The fact that multiple authors are involved also probably complicates issues, so if you wanted to produce a volume of papers by a particular researcher today you would either have a slim volume or perhaps get permission from their collaborators.

    I think the closest thing we have today are “greatest hits” collections of popular pieces by recent authors (although a complete collection of S.J. Gould’s essays would be cool). This is probably due to both changes in the way science is produced by researchers and the business model of publishing, so I doubt we’ll see a revival of “Collected Works.”

  3. #3 KAS
    September 19, 2008

    OMG!!! I am like a kid in a candy store on this site!

    Thanks so much for the link, I can’t beleive this is the first time I have heard of it.


  4. #4 KAS
    September 19, 2008

    Boston Public Library also has a free service to access many papers and sources, you just sign up for a free library card pin to access some like JSTOR, others you don’t need the pin. But, it doesn’t have allot books like Google; more partial and reference; but with great searching;


  5. #5 John S. Wilkins
    September 21, 2008

    Please do not overlook the following two sources of freebies:

    For older books often in Latin or French, but also German, English and occasionally Greek, try Gallica, a resource provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. School French should be enough to let you figure out how to download entire 18thC documents in French (I got among others, Linnaeus, Buffon and Lamarck).

    For a very diverse of, largely nineteenth and twentieth century, books, go to the Internet Archive which has many books in PDF, plain text and several other formats.

  6. #6 mlocock
    September 22, 2008

    The National Library of Wales is currently digitising 50 of its journal holdings including material still in copyright ( It has had to reach agreements with publishers and authors in order to do so.

    The argument about early papers that ‘should be in the public domain’ would be that the physical version could be freely copied, and indeed digitised by anybody who wanted to, but that the journal who has digitised it has created a new version that it holds rights over.

  7. #7 Lars Dietz
    September 22, 2008

    There’s also the Biodiversity Heritage Library (www., which has scans of a lot of old biology books and journals, and allows you to search for taxon names in the text. Another site that has thousands of old books is GDZ:

  8. #8 sbh
    August 4, 2009

    I am with you on Google Books–a fantastic resource indeed. I’ve got to leaf through books and periodicals that were once on my I-should-be-so-lucky list. And they actually do seem to be cleaning up blurry images, missing pages, and the other annoyances that have plagued the project. (And by the way, if you use Google Books and run across an unreadable page, please flag it; I’ve found that flagged pages do seem to be attended to.) In addition to the resources mentioned above, I’d like to observe that the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page is a useful compendium of books and periodicals scattered at various sites around the web.

  9. #9 Saikrishna Budamgunta
    June 14, 2010

    Cannot agree with you more. Just like to repeat what a friend has noted above. “I feel like a kid in a Candy store @Google Books”. I am really waiting for them to start a subscription service :)

    Kudos from India,