The State of the Search: Finding & Accessing E-books, Eight Months In

It’s now been almost eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shuttering of our library space and made us all overnight into digital researchers.

The initial outpouring of expanded access to materials that came from publishers and database providers was enormously important as we found our way in the new library world. So was the existence of the National Emergency Library, an ambitious project of the Internet Archive. Now, however, months after the crisis began, those avenues to extra access have almost all closed—and the library is still physically inaccessible.

Don’t despair! We still have a substantial electronic catalog, and we’ve developed some excellent tricks for finding e-texts both in the Mina Rees Library collection and elsewhere. Additionally, though we remain unable to enter our library at 365 Fifth, other libraries—most importantly NYPL—have been able to begin reopening and providing physical services.

Here are the questions that we ask and answer as we try to fulfill patrons’ e-book requests. The answers have changed somewhat over the last few months, but the questions take you down roads that lead to access for more titles than you might expect.

Is the book in our (real-world) collection?

If so, there’s an excellent chance that you can read it via HathiTrust. This organization has millions of digital files of scanned books that are ordinarily (for reasons of copyright) available only for cataloging and indexing purposes. However, in the face of the extraordinary limitations imposed on scholars by COVID-related closures, HathiTrust has instituted its Emergency Temporary Access Service (ETAS), which allows member institutions to access online, read-only versions of books that those libraries own but can’t currently use.

  • Navigate to the HathiTrust website and log in: Use the drop-down menu to select CUNY Graduate School and University Center and, on the next page you’re taken to, enter your GC network ID and password.
  • Search for the title of your book, with the “Full-Text” option activated below the search bar. If there is a readable version available, there will be a “Temporary access” link in the search result and in the main record as well.
  • Check the book out, and read it in your web browser.

Reading a book through HathiTrust isn’t a perfect solution—you can’t download it, so you have to read online, and you will have to renew the checkout hourly—but it is access we otherwise wouldn’t have.

Can it be found in one of the e-book sources in our collection?

OneSearch indexes most but not all of the e-books available to us, so it is worth checking some of the individual e-book databases. Those databases external to the GC—NYPL databases, for example, or open access directories—are not covered in our catalog and might contain what you’re looking for. A complete list is maintained in our Ebook Collections guide.

Is the book at NYPL?

The New York Public Library has both e-books and print books that the GC does not. NYPL has its own searchable catalog that includes e-resources, but perhaps even more helpfully, we list a few of the most useful of NYPL’s e-book databases in our e-books guide.

Additionally, NYPL has been able to begin providing some access to print titles in its circulating collection through a grab-and-go service, instituted in August and continuing to add branch pickup locations. (The same is true for Queens Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library.) Until just days ago the research collections remained inaccessible, even to GC affiliates. But beginning Nov. 9, the research libraries will be hosting individual scholars by appointment for onsite visits. [UPDATE: The uptick in COVID-19 cases in New York City forced the re-closing of the research libraries just days after they reopened. This option is therefore not currently available, but watch NYPL’s website for its return. We will continue to keep our patrons updated as we learn more as well.]

And perhaps most critical of all, the special borrowing privileges that GCers enjoy at NYPL—including the ability to, in many cases, check out noncirculating research materials—are back. We’ll be able to grab-and-go or get through Research Books by Mail those “USE IN LIBRARY” titles that we’ve been looking at longingly for the last eight months. (If you don’t have an NYPL card yet, get one!)

Is it in the Open Library?

The Internet Archive was forced to shut down its National Emergency Library in early June due to a publishers’ lawsuit, but it maintains the Open Library, which also lends books that have been digitized by scanning (rather than having been published as e-books). Older books that don’t have e-book editions are more likely to be found here than newer titles.

What about Scribd?

Scribd is a commercial e-book platform that offers an all-you-can-read model for $9.99 a month, and as a last resort we do sometimes look there. It’s neither chiefly scholarly nor free—though there is a 30-day free trial available—but it has a surprising number of scholarly titles.

And finally … can I get some help?

We don’t get to ask this question (except of each other), but you can; and the answer is, Of course! We continue to offer our e-book detective service, where we will look for e-books you can’t find. And if you want help finding additional or equivalent materials to replace the print books you can’t access, you can make an appointment with a librarian for research assistance.


Telescope image by Lars_Nissen from Pixabay

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.