In honour of both the September crunch and ActiveHistory.ca‘s own expanding book review section — be sure to check out Mitch Primeau’s review of The Second Greatest Disappointment (1999) — I’ll be devoting this month’s post to some of my favourite used book websites.
History tends to involve a few more books than other disciplines — okay, a lot more.
This stems from the fact that all books — not just books about history — become relevant in new ways, as relics of their own time and place. That’s right: physicists and political memoirists alike can look forward to having their every miscalculation and narcissistic indulgence poured over by wave after wave of yet-born historians. But I digress…
Recently, I’ve found it useful to bolster my regular library borrowings with quite a few modest used book acquisitions (see picture). These mostly consist of core works that I am likely to require on demand for the foreseeable future. Of course, used books are also an affordable alternative to catalogue unavailability (i.e. damage, demand, rare editions, etc.) and certain course readings.
One of the things the Internet has done exceptionally well is facilitate a market for used books. This tends to be overlooked amid the arrival of more and more digital formats and platforms; but, it will likely persist long after the publishing industry officially “goes digital” (as so foretold by nearly a decade of tech journalism).
Since wading into this market can be overwhelming, I thought I’d pair some of my favourite websites with some passing tips below.
Google is usually your best friend but its core algorithm is not designed to differentiate between passing references to the title you seek and copies for purchase or borrow.
Specific search engines are much more reliable and accurate: BookFinder.com is similar to Google (in scope and approach) and allows you to narrow your search by a few languages and currencies; while its affiliate owner, AbeBooks.com is a book retailer collective (spanning 57 countries) and can be used (among other things) to explore the inventory of some retailers in your area.
Of course, you should try and leverage the potential cost of acquiring a used copy against a library copy through WorldCat.org — a site with plenty of bibliographic data that also runs an automatic search for copies in your area.
And you may also want to see if a copy is currently being previewed (in whole or part) online through GoogleBooks — either because its free (hello?) or to use the service to compare different editions and other details. GoogleBooks is still an infant service but the company’s “…inten[tion] to scan every book ever published…” is ambitious and should prove fruitful, legal conflicts notwithstanding.
Sometimes the title you’re after has been recently reprinted or republished. Most commercial sites like Amazon.com and Powells.com maintain used book sections and also list used inventory alongside new copies. Both sections are worth comparing because the new editions could be less expensive.
Commercial sites tend to also have the latest information about recent releases. I find it’s useful to run a search through these sites and copy, say the ISBN, to plug it into one of the search engines mentioned above for contrast.
Clearance sites — like BookCloseOuts.com and ThriftBooks.com — have unstable inventories but their prices are very attractive. Returning to run new searches can be annoying but it can also help locate material you were not aware of — like the autobiography of a certain politician you seem to recall hearing about …from a friend? …at a conference? …on television?
Remember, as with everything for sale on the Internet, always check the feedback of other users and the descriptions of products before ordering. You don’t want your research deadline or that gift for your uncle to be ruined by damaged merchandise and a fight with a retailer.
Finally, for a culture that’s often described as materialistic to a fault, I’m surprised we don’t spend more time exchanging niche sites and tips — particularly because it’s such an interesting way to share history (however commercially) with one another and it’ll be a while yet before we digitize everything ever printed.
Don’t be shy in the comments if I’ve overlooked your favourite book site!