How to find free books online, find free PDF books online. Search for books you want, plus magazines and newspapers, free online.
Nearly everything we usually see on the Internet was ‘created digital’ since the 1990s. However, there are also millions of books, magazines and newspapers, published before the Internet existed, that have been scanned and made available online for free by various organizations. This is a guide for helping you find items in some of those collections.
The Public Domain: What is it? Why does it matter?
If a published item is in the public domain, that means it is not protected by intellectual property laws. In the U.S., copyrights have expired on most materials published before 1926, so they’re in the public domain. Also in the public domain are certain works published since 1926, right up to the present day. These include many publications of government offices (local, state and federal). In recent years the ‘Open Access’ movement has encouraged some authors to place new books and articles in the public domain. There are many online collections of public domain books and other media.
Online Archives Not in the Public Domain
Legal online access to books and media still under copyright protection is quite limited, by law. Many libraries make digitized books available to the public by applying restrictions similar to those the libraries use in lending physical books. Only a few digital copies of a title are ‘loaned’ to users at one time, and the digital files are automatically deleted after a few weeks. This approach is used by the Internet Archive, one of the organizations profiled below.
Many magazines still under copyright protection are included in the Internet Archive lending collection and other archives. To find out about accessing periodicals, you can skip past the book section on this page down to:
If you’re looking for free books online on a topic, here are three approaches, and the sites I recommend.
- Browse the subject pages here on Century Past Free Online Library;
- Use online search engines for ‘subject searches’;
- Find book titles on your subject with bibliographies. Then you can find more books on the archives below with title or author searches.
Free Online Book Sites & Catalogs
Century Past Library is the website you’re on now. It is designed for users who wish to browse for books by subject. To learn more, including tips on navigating it, see About Century Past Library.
Most book links in this very large and well-organized site appear to open books in the HathiTrust archive (see below). You have three ways to search for books online on your topic: Type a subject into the search box, browse an alphabetical index of subjects, or use the Library of Congress call number system. Most users will only be able to open the HathiTrust items that are in the public domain (see ‘The Public Domain: What Is It?’ above).
This catalog of America’s largest library contains a huge number of books published in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the online subject search tool is not complicated. Use the ‘advanced’ mode (in ‘search options‘, under the top search bar) to limit results by date and language. Sometimes search results include a link to a digital version of a public domain book at Internet Archive. If the book contains a bibliography, that is noted. The catalog conveniently allows you to send search results to your personal email account.
Claims to be the “world’s largest library catalog”. Its primary purpose is to find physical books and materials at libraries near your location, but it is also very useful for identifying titles. When you click on the entry for a single book and scroll down, you may find a description of the book, or a list of chapter headings.
Like Internet Archive, HathiTrust is a huge non-profit archive, with 8 million book titles and 460,000 serial titles, as of early 2022. About 40% of those are public domain items available to anyone for online reading. If you’re a member of one of their partner institutions, you may be able to gain access to items not in the public domain.
Don’t miss HathiTrust’s 7,000 ‘Collections‘. These are mostly book lists with links to online HathiTrust books, created by users on subjects they were researching.
This collection holds 3 million ‘modern’ (non-public domain) books; 85% of them in English. Somewhat confusingly, the Internet Archive has a second site, Open Library, from which you can access the same books via a different interface. Your Internet Archive log-on gives you access to both sites.
Subject Searches at Internet Archive
In my opinion, it probably isn’t possible for someone who isn’t a search expert to carry out thorough subject searches on the Internet Archive. Most book records were apparently created using Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal System terminology and structure, so non-librarians won’t easily find them. Many books were entered into their system with minimal subject metadata, so even a librarian may not be able to locate them. Given those caveats, the Internet Archive book collection is enormous, so a persistent subject search will usually turn up many books.
Use the Advanced Search screen. If you’re on an Internet Archive page, you can usually find it by clicking inside the search box found in the top right corner.
This image shows the top portion of the Advanced Search page. When you carry out a subject search, type “internetarchivebooks” into the Collection field, to limit the search to books. There is no Subject: field shown, so I type “Subject” into a Custom Field and then fill in my subject words in the empty field after “contains”. If you aren’t familiar with how search engines think, read the explanations at the bottom of the Advanced Search page before trying searches of more than one word.
My favorite cheat for subject searches is to first locate a few titles on my subject, using simple subject searches, bibliographies, or the online catalogs above. I then use this Advanced Search page to do a title search for each book. If a book is on Internet Archive, the metadata on its page will list one or more “Topics“. These topics have hyperlinks, and by clicking each topic that fits my subject, it will carry out a search for all the Internet Archive books with that topic. Look among the books in the search results for related topics to carry out a more thorough subject search.
Borrowing from Internet Archive
Internet Archive Books has 3 million books still in copyright available for borrowing online. When you open a book’s webpage there, you are usually offered the option to borrow for 1 hour or 14 days. You need a free account to do either. You can borrow for 1 hour repeatedly. If you are not given the option to borrow for 14 days, that copy may have been lent to another user. Try searching for the title, to see if there’s another copy available.
Google Books exists mainly for Google to sell books, so many books found there are not free. However, the Google Books search engine works well for subject searches, and entries for books for sale often enable you to see a chapter or more in preview mode. Also, this is a great place to find the publisher’s summary of the book, unless its an old book.
For free books, download options vary. Some books allow only PDF or plain-text download, while some books provide options for e-reader formats. The options are found at the gear icon at the top right corner.
This research guide at the Bond University Library has links to other reputable websites with free online book collections.
I have not found a free online source for most current mainstream magazines. However, Century Past Library has links to many free smaller magazines, and free archives for some major ones. Click “Magazines” in the top menu for our Magazine Subject Directory. If you don’t find your magazine there, try searching (in this order):
Century Past is the best place to start a search for newspapers in English. I have collected links to many free newspaper archives around the world, and presented them on several webpages, organized geographically. Along with archives of past newspapers there are links to current online newspapers and other news sources. See “Newspapers” in the top-of-page menu.
Updated: July 25, 2022