Find and Download Public Domain Books From Google

An immense collection of literature is available free online

Book and digital tablet
Yagi Studio (Courtesy Getty Images)

A wealth of classic literature lives on the internet—in Google Books—and it's free to anyone who can find it. The Google database contains a massive library of scanned books from the collections of public and academic libraries. Google Book Search is a useful tool for finding these books according to a keyword or phrase search. Google searches the content of the books as well as titles and other metadata, so you can search for snippets, passages, and quotes. Sometimes, you can find whole books that you can add to your own library and read on your phone or tablet. 

Only books with specific permissions can be downloaded for free, which usually means the books are old enough that they belong in the public domain. Some modern books are offered as an introduction to a series, too. Books with intact copyrights are available only for preview or, in some cases, for purchase in the Google Play Store. The amount of a book you can preview varies from just a citation to the entire book, depending on the agreement Google has with the publisher.

You can go directly to Google Books and find books to download for free. You'll need an author, genre, title, or some other descriptive term to enter into the search engine. The process is intuitive:

  1. Go to Google Books (not Google Play). 
  2. Search for a descriptive term, such as "Chaucer" or "Wuthering Heights."
  3. After Google returns the search results, click on Tools in the menu above the search results. 
  4. You should see the ​Tools menu appear at the top of the search results. Click on the option that says Any Books.
  5. Change it to Free Google eBooks in the drop-down menu to narrow the search results.
  6. When you find a book you want to download, click it to open its page, and choose Add to my library at the top of the screen. If you prefer to download the book as a PDF, go to the Settings cog icon and select Download PDF.

Some of the books in the search results aren't going to be classic or even public domain books; some are just books someone wrote and wants to distribute for free on Google Books, whether forever or for only a few hours. Read the description that appears with each of the books in the search results list for more details. You can adjust the Any time option in the ​Tools menu to find only older works to exclude modern commentaries. 

If you're not interested in reading a full book and just want to find out some information, you can use the Tools menu to restrict your search to books with an available preview by selecting Preview available in the Any time drop-down menu. That filter also shows free ebooks because they always include full previews.