Even with well over one and half million books and serials, the collection I maintain at The Online Books Page is far from comprehensive. The gaps in coverage are not hard to notice at sites like mine, because most material published under copyright– which can be as much as 90 years old at this point– is not made freely available online. But all libraries, no matter how large or well-provisioned, have their gaps. No one can collect everything, and a persistent reader or researcher will eventually find that their questions and interests go beyond the bounds of any particular collection.
However, there are lots of libraries out there, as well as lots of online information and literature that hasn’t been collected into an institutional library. A good library, of whatever size, serves its users well by collecting the most useful materials it can get for their needs, and helping them get whatever else they need in other places. Jeff Jarvis expressed this basic idea well a few years ago when discussing news organizations: “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.”
Many libraries already do this, in certain ways. The inter-library loan system helps library users who know they want a particular title their own library doesn’t have. Many libraries also maintain links to websites on various topics from their own library website or catalog. But these links, often maintained separately by each library, can only cover so much ground, as librarians have limited time to collect and maintain links. Even consortially maintained collections of links struggle to go beyond fairly generalized or particular-niche focuses, and stay current.
Libraries can do more, though. People coming to a library often have a particular topic in mind that they want to learn or read more about. They’re often looking for something they can pick up quickly, and for free. Knowing what that topic is, we should be able to point them towards useful literature they can quickly and freely obtain, whether or not it’s a title they already had in mind, and whether or not it’s in our own collection or something we link to directly. That’s the purpose of some new links now available on The Online Books Page.
For example, say you’re a high school student looking for books on the Underground Railroad. If you browse to this subject on the Online Books Page, you’ll find a number of free online books I list on this topic, and related topics. As before, you can explore those related topics, if you’re interested (maybe checking out fugitive slave biographies, for instance); or you can try digging deeper for books specifically on the Underground Railroad via the extended shelves.
But most of what you’ll find on my site will be 19th century and early 20th century materials. Your local library is likely to have books you can freely read as well, reflecting more up-to-date historical research, as well as books that might be more accessible to a high school student. There might also be useful research materials online that you can look at for free.
That’s why there’s a new “See also…” note just under the big “Underground Railroad” heading. If you click on the words “your library” in that note, you’ll be referred to your regular library, if we know about it, to see what they have on the Underground Railroad. (If you haven’t already told us which local library you want to use regularly, we give you a list of choices. It’s a pretty small list to start with, but I’m taking requests for more libraries to add. Or you can opt for OCLC’s Worldcat.org– they cover lots of libraries throughout North America and beyond.) Even after you register a preferred library, you’re not stuck with only using that one. You can click on the “elsewhere” link in the note to try a different library or service from the one you usually check– like maybe the university library that’s near your public library (or vice versa).
You might also want to find online research resources that aren’t books. For some of those, try clicking on the Wikipedia link provided for this subject. While the quality and reliability of Wikipedia articles themselves can vary, most mature Wikipedia entries include a rich set of useful links to more information. (I’ve discussed previously how useful Wikipedia is as a concept-oriented catalog.) The references and external links on Wikipedia’s Underground Railroad article, for instance, cover a wide range of informational websites, contemporary and current books, and digital library collections.
Similarly, if you’re looking at a list of online books by a particular author (like, say, W. E. B. Dubois), you’ll find a link at the bottom of the page to find more books by the author in libraries, as well as links to online books or Wikipedia articles about the author near the top. There are also links to find library copies of a particular book on its detailed catalog page; see for instance, the links at the bottom of our catalog entry for The Souls of Black Folk. This can be useful for people who want a print copy, or a different edition from the ones we list.
So far, I’ve added links from The Online Books Page to Wikipedia for more than 17,000 subjects, and links to library catalogs for millions of subjects, authors, and titles. (My thanks to OCLC, the Library of Congress, and Wikipedia for providing bulk access to the data that makes it possible to do much of this automatically.) I’ll be developing this service further, and doing more things with this data, in ways that I hope to describe here shortly. But I hope this first step is a useful demonstration of ways that different kinds of libraries and catalogs– online and local, academic and public, institutional and informal– can support each other through user-directed, context-sensitive, concept-level links between collections.