Amazon.com Opens the Books: Ask Serious, Long-Time Researchers to Name the Most Valuable Benefit of Web Access and They'll Cite the Ability to Search the Content of Books, Periodicals, Newsletters, and Newspapers. Such Access Has Eliminated Untold Hours of Paging through Hardcopies and Greatly Enhanced Information Gathering

Article excerpt

Of the categories of text publications made available online, books have lagged behind magazines and newspapers in full-text availability. While full-text encyclopedias were a common offering of pre-Web services such as DELPHI, CompuServe, and The Source, most offerings tended to be specialized. Dialog, LexisNexis, and similar information utilities offer directories and specialized reference works--sometimes in limited versions--but more general offerings largely elude the online researcher. Of those available, most full-text books are works in the public domain, as is the case with Project Gutenberg.

As a practical matter, one would not expect publishers to offer the full text of books online. In addition to the potential for eroding hardcopy sales, there is the matter of illegal copies, as well as copyright issues. Thus, to find out whether a book contains a reference to, or detailed information on, a specific topic, it is necessary to physically look through the book at a library or bookstore. The same is true for finding all books that cover a topic, considering the topic might be buried in a chapter of a book rather than being the main focus of the book.

REVEALING WHAT'S BETWEEN THE COVERS

So matters stood until October 23, 2003, when Amazon.com opened more than 120,000 contemporary books in its catalog to full-text searching. The site's "Search Inside the Book" feature lets shoppers search the complete content of books from some 200 cooperating publishers. Further, searchers can also view images of actual pages from books found with the "Search Inside" feature. (Full information can be found at www.amazon.com/exec/obi dos/tg/browse//10197021/ref=amb_cen ter-3_30436/002-7220864-4479209.)

The range of searchable books is broad. Included are novels, popular histories, technical works, academic publications, and even short story collections. The content is not limited to obscure titles; the books are a good representative sampling of the millions of books Amazon.com lists. Books with 2003 copyright dates are common, and well-known authors and series are included. The publishers range from big names such as Time-Warner and Random House to more modest and specialized houses. All of which translates into a research tool that is nothing less than stunning.

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The database, which contains 33 million words, was integrated into Amazon.com's existing search system. The Amazon.com search engine is a powerful tool (powerful enough that major corporations have licensed it for use in intranets), but fairly simple to use. There are several ways to search books. For a broad search, you can use the search box at the top of most Amazon.com pages. Select "Books" in the drop-down menu and enter the keyword(s) or phrase and click the "Go" button.

The system accepts single or multiple keywords. Phrases must be enclosed in quotes, and can be combined ("Crosley Field" "World Series" can be entered in the search box, and each phrase will be treated as a keyword.) Keywords can be combined with phrases to narrow searches also ("Crosley Field" 1939).

Books with and without full-text searching show up in search results. This is because all book listings have keywords attached to them to facilitate noncontent searches. A full-text offering is distinguished by a "Search Inside" icon above the cover's thumbnail image.

Some results in listings are accompanied by an excerpt from the page containing the keywords or phrases used in the search, as in the Crosley example, and some aren't. Either way, clicking on the book's title provides a menu of excerpts of pages that contain the search keywords or phrases. …

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