Some of you will already know that Google has extended its Book Search facility to enable PDF downloads of many public domain works. This of course, has the potential to make it a tremendous free primary source resource for historians in many fields. So what has it got if you’re interested in British crime and legal history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
It’s pretty straightforward to use. You need to check the ‘Full view’ button on the Book Search page; do your search, visit the result for any book you’re interested in and if a download is available, there will be a button on the righthand side of the page. (A note: as far as I can tell, you can only get the complete downloads, not selected chapters or sections, and so some of the PDF files are going to be pretty large and take a while to download…)
You’ll probably need the Advanced search to narrow down searches, eg by specifying publication date ranges, words in title, author, etc), and once you’ve done that a couple of times you’ll be able to see that the advanced search syntax is really quite simple to type straight into the search box. So, for example, I just did a search for “intitle:justices peace date:1700-1900″. That was too narrow (although it did return this), but after all part of the fun with Google Book Search has been experimenting to find out what’s likely to be most useful, and being prepared to follow unexpected paths. Being able to get a PDF to save/print and read later just made doing all that much more worthwhile.
I decided to focus on the nineteenth century, for a change and since that’s where I’m in most need of help (and also because Google is unlikely to be able to surpass the range of texts I can already access at work for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). A search for ““old bailey” date:1800-1930” produces a promising number of results; a similar search for the more formal term “central criminal court” gives a smaller and only partly overlapping set of results. The phrase “criminal law” needs the addition of ‘england’ for manageability, but returns potentially useful results like this 1830 constables’ guide.
(Mind you, using the ‘date’ restriction can produce odd results. When I just searched for “old bailey” one interesting-looking text appeared on the second results page; in the restricted date search above, it didn’t turn up until the third page. Very strange.)
Google are clearly still working on this; for example, the download for Howell’s State Trials (1826) isn’t yet available [update (21 September): it is now, but it's a big 'un, over 50MB...]. I don’t yet know just how good this is going to be. But this very cursory examination suggests that it’s made the book search facility far more usable and useful for serious researchers than it has been so far. Which can’t be bad.