There are many places to find public domain books, offline and online. A great place to start is your local library. If you’re near a university library, you may have access to a great special collection, so you should check it out. Used bookstores are another great place to find public domain books.
You can also do research online, of course. And since that’s where we are, let’s go with that. Here are three helpful resources for finding libraries:
Here’s a list of resources to help you find public domain books online. For each resource, I give you an idea of what sort of books you’ll find there and whether there are any “gotchas” when it comes to using them.
What’s there: Classic public domain books in XHTML format. They are web page versions of Project Gutenberg “Plain Vanilla ASCII” eTexts. (See what you can do with public domain books? This is a lovely site.) You’ll find works by Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling ... well, you get the idea.
Using what you find: The books featured on this site, as well as illustrations within the book pages, are in the public domain.
What’s there: A wide selection of classic fiction and nonfiction works, plus a large collection of poetry. Also includes classic reference works. Bartleby.com provides the best works of fiction from a wide range of classic authors. A small sample of the authors you’ll find here: Marcus Aurelius, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot. Also Gray’s Anatomy, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and The Harvard Classics. There’s a ton here. A really good site for research.
Using what you find: Many (if not most) of the works on this site have been digitized from editions originally published before 1923 (that is, works in the public domain). But be careful if you use these materials for more than research or personal (noncommercial) use. Why? Because Bartleby.com claims copyright in all of its content. Not just its HTML markup/code, but everything. Here’s an example citation:
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs. New York: C.L. Webster, 1885–86; Bartleby.com, 2000. www.bartleby.com/1011/. [Date of Printout].
The words in the original text (and any illustrations that were published with it) are in the public domain, and nothing Bartleby.com says can change that. However, Bartleby.com’s User Agreement (a browsewrap) warns you not to “modify, publish, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create new works from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit” any of its content. You’ve been warned. So if you want to use any of the public domain works you find here, just use the original text.
What’s there: (Warning: the home page has a blindingly bright red background.) Classic works by authors such as Dickens and Joyce, Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all Shakespeare’s plays, and short stories by writers such as Mark Twain, Anton Chekov and Edgar Allan Poe. Also offers a collection of study guides to some classic works. The site is not currently being actively maintained.
Using what you find: Most texts on this site are in the public domain. Note, though, that copyright is claimed in the HTML versions created for the site. According the site FAQ, the texts “were typed from scratch, repaginated and reformatted hence these works are an original edition and should be cited as copyright Bibliomania.com Ltd 2000.” That’s incorrect, however — retyping and repaginating a public domain work doesn’t result in a new copyright, at least under US law. Less clear is the HTML code (whether adding HTML code to a public domain text results in a copyrightable work). I’m doubtful, but you must be aware of the rights claimed, and they’re broad: “You are free to download these texts for personal use, but they may not be used for any commercial purpose, or republished in any form (including on the internet) without our prior email permission.”
What’s there: A nice selection of classic Christian books in various electronic formats — the formats vary from title to title but may include XML, HTML, PDF, Palm Docbook (pdb), Microsoft Reader (lit), rtf, some mp3 audio files, and txt (plain ASCII). There’s a list of available files on each book’s information page. You can browse by author, title, or subject. You can also search in all books (full text search). Check out their recommended titles for a sample of what’s on the site.
Using what you find: Most of the works I found were public domain, but there are some links to titles on other sites (and those may be copyrighted). Check the “About” page for any work you’re interested in.
What’s there: Looks like this site is no longer being updated, as it has the plays but not the poetry. But still, if you’re looking for Shakespeare’s plays in HTML format, here they are.
Using what you find: These HTML versions have been placed in the public domain. (No one’s claiming copyright in their “online editions” here, I’m happy to report.)
What’s there: Huge index of most major ebook sites and some smaller specialized sites (lists more than 123,000 titles from commercial and noncommercial publishers, universities, and various private sites). The majority of books are available for free, but not all of them are. Literature, history, law, the arts, children’s books, math and science ... the subjects run the gamut of western thought. The index lists author, title, site, format (HTML, Palm, Adobe eBook, etc.), price (if any), and organization. You must log in to use the site.
Using what you find: Use restrictions will depend on the site(s) you visit. Digital Book Index is just that — an index. There are links to Project Gutenberg, but also to other publishers ... some of whom claim copyright in the electronic versions of texts on their sites (so be aware of that).
What’s there: Texts, images, and audio files related to Southern history, literature, and culture. There are ten thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs. The collections include Southern literature from the colonial period to the beginning of the 20th century, material relating to life in the South during the Civil War, the development of the church in the Southern African American community, and African Americans’ struggle for freedom. It’s a rich collection.
Using what you find: There is a lot of public domain material here but, like Bartleby.com, this site has use restrictions. You may quote or reproduce the material on this site for personal and educational purposes without prior permission, as long as you give appropriate credit. (“Used with permission of The University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”) Commercial use is prohibited without prior permission. Also note that there are other copyrighted materials here that UNC has used with permission. You would need permission from the copyright holder to use those (beyond fair use).
What’s there: What you see is the site’s index, its file system view. There’s no slick search interface, so you’ll have to spend some time poking about. But there’s a lot here. Chekhov short stories, works by Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), Zola (Germinal), and Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier) for example.
Using what you find: Many public domain books here, but some works on the site may not be in the public domain ... so if you want to do more than just read the books online, take a look at this page first.
What’s there: The first batch of public domain books that Google has scanned came online in November 2005. Whatever your opinion of the Google Book Project, this site is very helpful for discovering books. It’s a great research tool. Just do a keyword search — if Google has scanned a book whose content matches your search terms, it will link to it in the search results. Click a book title to see basic information about the book. If the book is in the public domain, you’ll be able to see the entire book. (If not, you’ll see no information, a few snippets of text with your search term in it, or a few pages from the book.)
As I mentioned at the top of this page, there’s usually a link to find the book in a library ... and you’ll also see links to online bookstores where you can buy the book. This is great for locating hard copy of certain books (which will keep you out of “but my online edition is copyrighted” trouble).
Using what you find: To limit your search to books Google knows are in the US public domain, precede or follow your search terms with the date operator (e.g., date:1790-1922).
What’s there: GPO Access is a service of the US Government Printing Office that provides free electronic access to a wealth of information products produced by the federal government. See the A-Z resource list for a comprehensive list of official federal resources available on the site. Browse the A-Z resource list to get an idea of all that’s here ... or browse the lists by governmental branch.
Using what you find: Information provided on the GPO Access site is in the public domain and can be used without restriction, unless specifically noted. Note, though, that the GPO Access site links to other web sites, so take a look at the policies and legal notices on those sites.
What’s there: A collection of children’s literature whose stated purpose is to ̴enable children to understand the world around them and the global society in which they live.” There’s a wide selection of books for children ages 3-13, including international titles. Browse by author, title, language, and subject/keywords.
What’s there: As the site proclaims, the goal of The Million Book Project was to digitize a million books by 2005. Looks like they’ve made it to just over 10,500 ... which is a lot, for sure, and you can search the results here. You can browse by author, title, collection, and subject/keyword. Also view recently reviewed books and most popular downloads. Scanned books are in DJVU, PDF and tk3 formats.
What’s there: Collection of children’s literature consisting mainly of works published in the US and Great Britain from before 1850 to beyond 1950. Digital images (JPEGs and PDFs, as far as I can tell) made from books, pamphlets, and the like.
What’s there: Lists more than 25,000 online books, definitive collections, and serials. The works are hosted elsewhere. You can search by author or title, browse a list of new books, or browse by subject category. The site is easy to navigate.
Using what you find: Not all works listed here are in the public domain, although many are. (There are lots of links to Project Gutenberg.) If a book is listed, either it’s not copyrighted in the country from which the book is served, or the copyright holder has given permission for free, noncommercial online use (the exact terms vary, depending on the work). So if you want to redistribute a copyrighted book, be sure to check and see if the book (or the site it’s on) says anything about copyrights and permissions.
What’s there: Index of over 10,000 free electronic texts, from Alice in Wonderland and Aesop’s Fables to Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible (and lots more). Includes works in languages other than English. Various formats: plain vanilla ASCII, plucker (can be read on a PDA), PDF, or TeX. Plucker is free software, btw. Browse by author, title, language, recently posted, or top 100. Or search the database for author name, title, language or words in the full text of the book.
Using what you find: These are all public domain works. You may distribute copies of the books electronically, or by disk, book or any other medium if you either delete the “legal small print” section at the end of any text, and all other references to Project Gutenberg, or you distribute the book under the Project Gutenberg trademark, in which case you must abide by a set of rules. (And pay a trademark license fee, should you make a profit.) Don’t use the Project Gutenberg trademark to market any commercial products without permission.
What’s there: Growing collection of books that includes devotionals, biographies, and true-to-life stories, mostly written during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.
Using what you find: The majority of the works here are in the public domain in the US. On the main page of each work, following the title and author, you’ll see the work’s copyright status. The periodicals in the collection are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. (You may republish that material as long as you give credit and disclose the license terms.)