Use Project Gutenberg for Research

What do carpet beetles, Plato, and the diary of a politician from the 1600s all have in common? You can find all of them on the website Project Gutenberg for free. If you are unfamiliar with the website, buckle up—we are diving into the public domain!

Read more: Use Project Gutenberg for Research

Project Gutenberg is a website that offers over 60,000 titles in the public domain for free. This means they can be downloaded as eBooks, read on their website, or just copied and pasted it into a word document and saved for later. Public domain means there are no longer copyright claims to the material. You can quote from it, rewrite it, or just plain steal ideas from it. It is the writer’s great sandbox.

Wanna read the play that Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated? Read “Our American Cousin” here. How about a book about baseball in the early 1900s? I recommend Christy Mathewson’s “Pitching in a Pinch.” Or perhaps you want to read The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness? Just click here. My personal favorite way to use Project Gutenberg is to use the “randomized search.” Each time you get a unique list of 20 random titles in multiple languages. This was how I found the pamphlet about carpet beetles (I didn’t want you to think I had a bug problem) and other books. The best part is, you can refresh your page and get a whole new list every time like some nerdy slot machine!

A Gutenberg Bible from the Gutenberg Museum.
Gutenberg Bibles from the Gutenberg Musuem

The Real Value of Project Gutenberg

However, if you are only using Project Gutenberg to discover forgotten books from forgotten authors, you’re wasting this great resource. The true value doesn’t come from free eBooks or audiobooks. It comes from primary sources. When we do research for historical fiction, we usually turn to books written today, and while this can help you understand the facts of the time period, you miss out on the authenticity of the setting. This is where Project Gutenberg comes in.

It is a time machine to the exact moment in history you want to write about. If you’re writing about the Oregon Trail, don’t just read books about the Oregon Trail, find diaries and journals of people who lived it. Find fiction about the Oregon Trail that was written at the time. What was the perception of the Wild West on the East Coast in the 1800s? These books can give us a glimpse into how the people of that time really lived. There are no anachronistic errors in journal entries.

Two Types of Truth

 While modern history books might have a more broad and factual depiction of King Philip’s War, Mary White Rowlandson’s personal experiences does more to explain the attitudes and fears of Anglo-Americans toward Indigenous People than any book written today. It is a brutal story, but one which transports you into a time period like no history book ever can. You see the same horrors she saw. My point is, there are two types of truth: facts, and authenticity. If you are writing historical fiction, do not have your characters possess all the knowledge of the time, or make them prophetic of what is to come. People living through history do not have the luxury of hindsight and neither should your characters. By using Project Gutenberg as a research tool for your historical fiction, you become a participant in history: not just merely a spectator.

Have you ever been to Project Gutenberg? What is your favorite obscure book no one else has read? Let me know in the comments!

Kyle Morgan is a fulltime college student at Grand Canyon University, where he is majoring in Professional Writing for New Media. The youngest of three boys, Kyle is the final bird in his parent’s nest in the ever-growing state of Idaho. On his blog Cranial Flatulence – A comedy blog. (, he recounts his hilarious, and often embarrassing adventures of being a homeschool fundamentalist in the Pacific Northwest. You can check out his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Use Project Gutenberg for Research

  1. What a great resource for us to immerse ourselves in the time periods we’re writing about! Thanks so much for sharing this unique website. I’ll definitely be tracking back into the history in my hometown and discovering some gems. I’m sure they’ll enhance my writing.

  2. Kyle, thanks for this great post reminding me of Project Gutenberg. It’s been a while since I’ve hopped over there. Your post has reminded me of its great value! It is a fascinating place to explore. I have to be careful and set a timer because one intriguing side note can easily lead me to another, and another. 🙂

What Do You Think?