Finding Information in Books

I've talked about this a bit at sessions I taught at my library and also at Web Search University but it's still a favorite.  Plus, you asked for posts on finding information. Oh, and one of the tools just released some updates so this is fairly timely.

This is not how to use the catalog to see if a book you want is available in your library and to get a shelf location!  Also not about finding something good to read (frankly, I'm completely out of practice with reader's advisory, so can't help you there). Books are useful containers for information, data, and stuff you need to make new science, do cool engineering, and answer whatever questions. What kinds of things might a book work best for?

  • facts - physical properties (like a handbook)
  • equations
  • overviews/explanations/introductions
  • in-depth treatments
  • not for cutting edge, mostly

In the past, you had to rely on subject headings and pathfinders to locate potential books and then check the table of contents and indexes to see if your topic is covered. With all of the digitization projects combined with ebooks, there are a lot more options.

Google Books

Google has gone to libraries and scanned books as well as forming partnerships with publishers to get preview copies.  Interestingly, this includes old bound volumes of journals and government technical reports.  You might just be able to get away with the search and find the information you need in snippets.  See for example, this search to find the refractive index of indium tin oxide.  At some point I'll do a post about searching for chemistry by OR-ing different ways of representing a chemical in text (ITO is more common in the relevant field than InO2Sn or InSnO2). You can see some answers already in the results.  Once you find the book, if you can't read your answer right off, click to "Find in a library" and see if you can maybe even access an electronic copy from home using your library login.

You can use the book overview page to find books that cite this book, reviews, and the table of contents. In the most recent update, they added ways for you to embed this content in your page.


You can use Amazon's search inside the book feature to find information. These books will mostly be newer. This used to work much better than it does now. You can search within a book and see "text stats" like readability. & HathiTrust

The Internet Archive also hosts full text books online, including a copy of the Biodiversity Heritage Digital Library. These books are typically out of copyright (older than 1923 in the US)  In general, these are probably less likely to be useful for most scientists so I wouldn't start there unless that's what you need. HathiTrust compiles the library copies of Google Book scans. Lots of sci-tech here, but the search interface isn't there yet.

Federated Searches (subscription required)

If you're at a fairly large institution, you might have a federated search tool - this would be something that searches across multiple library databases.  A popular product is MetaLib but there are a few of these.  Where I work, we can cross search a huge collection of engineering handbooks from CRC press, McGraw-Hill, Morgan and Claypool, and others. Your mileage may vary

Individual Subscriptions (and pay per view) to Collections of Ebooks

Ebooks are the wild, wild west right now with respect to format and use and licensing. Your local library most likely has some subscriptions that allow you to search across various books. In Safari, for example, you can search for code snippets across books.  CRC Press and Knovel also both let you sort tables of properties from books and even do sub-structure searching.

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