Learning Search

A Look at Open Library

Last weekend I came across the news that Open Library was now offering full-text search for its book collection. Full-text searching for a book collection is always reason to celebrate, but I hadn’t looked at the Open Library in a long time. So I took a few minutes and – wow! Have you explored the Open Library lately? There’s a lot to see, a lot of ways to search and hey – there’s even a content embedding option.

What Is Open Library?

Open Library is a part of the Internet Archive. As its About page notes, “One web page for every book ever published. It’s a lofty but achievable goal. To build Open Library, we need hundreds of millions of book records, a wiki interface, and lots of people who are willing to contribute their time and effort to building the site. To date, we have gathered over 20 million records from a variety of large catalogs as well as single contributions, with more on the way.”

You get a really good sense of what’s available just from the front page:

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The front page allows you to look at items by subject, in a few different categories, and even lists books that are borrowable. You can do a simple keyword search here but I want to get into the advanced search, which now includes full-text searching.

Advanced Search

The advanced search is available at  https://openlibrary.org/advancedsearch . Here you can search by title, ISBN, author, subject, place, person, or publisher. Some of these are easily understandable – I’m sure you know what a title is – but person or place? Let’s take a closer look.


Searching for subject gives you results that are oriented toward a general subject search result, not for subjects that might be inside a larger topic.

For example, if I did a search for cows I’m going to find books about raising cows for the most part. If I do a search for strawberry shortcake, however, I’m not going to find cookbooks. Instead I’m going to find this:

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Yup, those are all books about the cartoon character Strawberry shortcake.

There are only 17 results here but you can narrow them down still further using the filters on the right. You can distinguish from listings that have an ebook or not, author, subject, publication date, publisher, and language (that one got cut off in the screen shot.) Ebooks — or at least the ones I looked at in this search result — were available to view in an online reader or “borrow” in an encrypted PDF format.

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If you’re going to do a subject search, start with general search terms and then get more specific. If you’re looking for strawberry shortcake recipes, in other words, do a subject search for desserts first. (Or just do a full-text search — more about that momentarily.)


Just like what it sounds like – lets you search the book collection for a particular place. Note that the books found might be set in the place, not about the place. For example, searching Place for New York City will find Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist though that’s set in NYC, and not about that place in particular. (It’s also a terrifically funny story about early 20th century New York. You can get a copy at Project Gutenberg.)

You can search by state, city, and country as far as I can tell. Searching for Cotonou and for Greensboro both got results. Greensboro really wasn’t specific enough, however; I got results for Greensboro Alabama, Greensboro North Carolina, and Greensboro Vermont. Adding the state code (place:Greensboro NC) seemed to get as specific as I needed.


Another simple one; just enter the name of a famous person you’d like the learn more about. I did a search for Ida B Wells; her name’s on my mind since the recent fundraising for a memorial. I got 36 results. Most of the results were obvious except for one; the Mary Church Terrell papers‘ description did not mention Ms. Wells specifically (though it did mention HG Wells). When I reran the search using the Open Library’s Ida B. Wells person link via the filters on the right of the search results, I did not get that result. I guess the lesson here is when in doubt, use the Internet Archive person filter for better results.

These search options are good when you have easily-definable, broad searches you want to run. But when you want to run very specific searches, use the new full-text search options.

Full-Text Search

The full-text search is a more recent offering and is available at https://openlibrary.org/search/inside . And this is serious full-text search, so get as specific as you can.

(Note that the Open Library does not appear to have tons of options for its full-text search. When I tried zucchini -fritters I got the same results as I did for my phrase search below. When I did a search for zucchini OR fritters I got far fewer results, as Open Library seemed to be interpreting my search as a search for the phrases “zucchini or” or “or fritters”.)

I’m going to search for “zucchini fritters”, because why not. I got over 200 results!

The first result is a Nancy Drew book which is going to be hard to see the cooking results underneath, but the excerpts were so funny I’m just leaving it here.

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To see the entire book you’ll need to “borrow” the book, which requires a free Internet Archive account. I decided to borrow Biker Billy Cooks With Fire (You can borrow up to five books and have them for up to 14 days each.)

Running the search from here gives you a line at the bottom that marks the places in the book where your search term appears. In this case the first result was the recipe and the rest of it was index.

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I love the simplicity of the reader here. Note that you can download an encrypted PDF to read, but I think if I really wanted to try this recipe, I’d screenshot it.

And if I wanted to share? I guess I could share the screenshot, though that’s not really cool. But I could embed the content of the book – and Open Library does support that!


To embed a book from the Open Library on your Web site,  you’ll need to start on the Open Library page for a book. Let’s stick with Biker Billy; his page is at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL1121768M/Biker_Billy_cooks_with_fire .

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I have highlighted the “Share this book” part of the page, which is what you’ll need. Just click on Embed and you’ll get a line of code that looks like this:

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(I put that in as an image because I wasn’t sure what WordPress would do with it.)

If you add that to a Web page you will probably something that looks like this:

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I say “probably” because you may not be able to use the code. In the case of WordPress.com which I use (hosted WordPress), I can’t add iframe content. (I got the image above by putting the code into a standalone HTML file and viewing that.) If you embed the content and get nothing, or just the code, or just a link, you might not have the ability to embed content on your Web site.

But if you CAN embed it you’ll see a notation of whether you can borrow the book or not (this book was not available because I had borrowed it; I’ve returned it now so knock yourselves out) and a few more details.

The Internet Archive gets a lot of attention for its Wayback Machine project, but the Open Library is worth an explore — especially now that you can search all a book’s contents. Check it out!

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